You COULD say that Andrew Sean Greer is back at it again, cleverly telling tales with his elegant sleight-of-hand. His last novel, "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," set in early 20th century San Francisco, chronicled the adventures of said Max, who at birth resembles an old man but with each passing year grows younger in appearance, upending life-cycle assumptions and limitations.
Greer's new novel, "The Story of a Marriage," doesn't turn on a series of fantastic, suspension-of-belief plot points, but the unadorned title belies the startling narrative land mines Greer has seeded within the novel.
Set in San Francisco's fog-bound, beachside Sunset District in the early 1950s, the novel chronicles the marriage of Holland and Pearlie Cook. It's told in the voice of Pearlie, a woman who has been living her life as if playing piano with her foot on the damper pedal. Despite her intelligence, sensitivity, even her accomplishments (she's well read, served as a WAVE, navigated herself out of the rural South), she is unsure of herself, of her very instincts. She doesn't see herself the way the world sees her. Instead of beautiful and persevering, she sees plain and weak. Pearlie has built her world around protecting the men in her life, Holland and their child, Sonny -- nurturing and shielding them both; her husband from his supposedly "transposed heart," her son from the effects of polio. The picture cracks upon the arrival of a stranger, Buzz Drumer, who materializes out of the mists of the past, with a $100,000 offer: "He came to my house like a wave at high tide and ruined the little castle that I had built."
Not quite 200 pages, the novel nonetheless has grand, sweeping ambitions, taking on war, race, sexual orientation, patriotism, the shifting notion of what it is to be an American. Holland's past and Pearlie's future are backdropped by a country still set off-balance by the atmosphere of war -- still haunted by World War II, now buffeted by one in Korea. But it is the book's surprise turns that create the biggest temblors -- not just in the lives on the page but also within the reader's minds. Neither Pearlie nor Holland, it turns out, is exactly who we at first think she or he is.
"It's been interesting, some of the reaction from friends who read it early," said Greer, 37, on a recent ride to the Outer Sunset to retrace his fact-finding steps through Pearlie and Holland's neighborhood. "Some have said to me when they hit the first revelations that it makes them wonder about their own assumptions."
The book's secrets are the true heart of the matter -- like the secrets we keep in life in order, we think, to better manage it. They're so important that in the advanced reader's copy, Greer's editor, Frances Coady, included a note that is a "plea" not to "reveal its secrets to those readers coming after you."
Four years in the making, this book was delayed by the success of "Max Tivoli," which became a national bestseller and a "Today" show book club choice. While promoting it, Greer didn't carve out time to write. "So I got kind of lost," he said. Immersion -- several writers' colonies (MacDowell, Yaddo among them) and a new "no excuses" writing schedule -- got him back on track. (As he prepares to tour on this book, he's keeping to a strict schedule. "I had to get a little place to write because my boyfriend works at home and is on the phone constantly. It makes it difficult to concentrate.")
Immersing himself in 1950s San Francisco, particularly the Sunset, was a little more complicated, Greer explained. Except for vintage landmarks -- the zoo, the ocean, the old Play Land with its penny attractions and the "Limbo" ride -- "the Sunset is a bland district," he said. "It was a real handicap for me, in a way, because [Pearlie] couldn't run into a lot of exciting things."
But the Sunset then became an almost physical presence haunting the book. "I had the ocean. I had chiming trolleys. I had fog. And I thought, 'I have enough.' "
Just off Noriega Street, Greer found a wedge of a parking space on one of the adjacent avenues lined with row after row of typical-to-the neighborhood structures: boxlike houses, standing snugly side by side like good soldiers. "Now, where would Pearlie and Holland have lived?" Greer muttered. While some homes have been done up in recent years to look more distinctive -- turned into postmodern Victorians with busy rickrack or fronted with New Orleans-style iron lace -- the structures that most caught Greer's eye were those that looked like Easter eggs: the pastel pinks, greens, yellows nested together.
Greer's novel almost required the mood of this quiet, relatively nondescript San Francisco neighborhood -- the fog and drifting sand, the disconnectedness. The Sunset, Greer pointed out, "was a part of the city no one really built on until the war was over. Then, the hills were flattened, soil was laid down over the sand. . . . It felt outside of everything." And it was.
That, in turn, captured the unsettled moment the country was in, the limbo between inaction and action -- the pause between two wars, the moment before the ice melts. Pearlie's world is still one of seltzer, ice, bread and rag men. "Nothing has really started yet," he said, "and so Pearlie doesn't know change is coming. It feels like everything is sort of stalled."
'That suburban impulse'
When the Sunset was filled by returning soldiers after World War II, Greer said, "I think it was because people wanted to live in a white part of town -- but that was totally unspoken. A lot of soldiers came back from that war and -- it was kind of that suburban impulse -- they had had enough of 'other,' " he said. "And . . . they were willing to live in a part of the city that San Franciscans thought was absurd."
The neighborhood was a blank slate onto which a young family could write its life -- a place, as Pearlie describes it, that was "nothing like the rest of the city, no hills or views or bohemians, nothing Italian or Victorian to make you take a photograph."
Maybe not tourists, but lucky for Greer there were photographs. Many. The Sunset Library had for years been collecting photos drawn from residents' family photo albums. It played a tremendous part in helping him to conjure place -- sight, sound, mood.
Greer also began reading the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on 1951 to '53, even making a binder of clippings and advertisements to refer to if he got stuck. "The '50s are full of cliches, and I was just nervous about it. I wanted to get a sense of what people thought of it at the time. And there wasn't a clear sense of what was going on or what the decade was. It was all about the war and all about the Japanese, and it was surprisingly little about racial unrest in the U.S.," he said. "The paper was full of anxiety."
We ended up in Polly Ann's, a small ice cream parlor that figures in the novel -- renamed Hussey's and reimagined as a full-service soda fountain. Like so much nowadays, it has been redone, its personality buffed away. Greer was heartened to find that the spinner-wheel is still there, one remnant of '50s kitsch -- you take a chance on what flavor the pointer lands on ("Black Walnut," "Star Wars," "Pomegranate," "Freeway"). But he was even more excited to find that the shop offers a fountain drink also featured in the book: "And, I think we need a Suicide! A small Suicide."
He settled onto a stool, looking out at Noriega, dotted with sleepy mom and pops -- bars, Thai restaurants, Asian markets, a low-key surf shop -- "the 'other' has definitely arrived."
The book, Greer said, was inspired by one of his grandmother's stories. She was a woman of the '50s, in rural Kentucky, who, for all of their stark differences, was in many ways much like Pearlie; hemmed in by life's circumstances. Early in her marriage, a family friend appeared bearing a shocking story; and, like Pearlie, his grandmother was frozen, unable to act. What threads through the novel is how inaction can be a more brutal force than action itself: The players go through their predetermined roles in a freighted, excruciating silence. "My grandmother was poor and she had two boys, and she was willing to stay in the marriage yet not fix the marriage." She, like Pearlie, "stopped her life for a while. Something a lot of women do. 'It's good enough right now.' But this whole episode breaks it open in all kinds of ways."
Essential to the book's working mechanisms, Greer had to inhabit Pearlie completely. And he wondered, quite frankly, if he had the chops to do it. He even found a photo of someone he pictured as Pearlie, which he framed and kept at his work table, even taking it to Europe on one writing retreat. "Research wasn't going to help me, I finally realized," he said, "because Pearlie had separated herself from that community -- I think in a hope of trying to leave her life behind, which left her really lonely. And so I just tried to imagine her trapped by the time she was born in. And forced to live a life she wouldn't choose but that might surprise her."
In a certain way, like Pearlie, his writing exercise forced Greer to push himself as a writer -- and it surprised him. There was the challenge of making Pearlie feel real, credible though impeded by a deep passivity; of evoking the resonances of a "forgotten war" and its residual effects; and of trying to spin a scenario that is both unthinkable and devastating but keep it taut and surprising -- and, above all, keep the secrets under wraps.
That final piece hasn't been as easy as he'd hoped. Already some reviews have revealed some if not all of the book's crucial turns. That has left him flabbergasted. "I sort of worried about it all along. I mean, for a negative review I sort of get it, but for a positive one I think it's kind of mean," he said. "So it's been a roller coaster here for me." But though the turns are as sharp as being jostled in the dark by a Play Land thrill ride, the book is not just smoke and mirrors. What stays with you once you're spit out of limbo into the light is the curative clarity of the truth, of seeing.
"Absurd as it sounds," Greer said, "I would hope a reader would put down my book with the sensation of X-ray vision: that they can see through people's facades, through the acts that couples put on for us. Even through the noise of our present era."
Andrew Sean Greer will be in conversation with Mark Sarvas at the Central Library at 7 p.m. May 28.