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Review: A reality star seeks revenge in a novel of civility versus Trumpian menace

Author Mary Gordon.
Mary Gordon, whose latest novel is “Payback.”
(Christopher Greenleaf)

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The opening scene of “Payback, Mary Gordon’s new novel, introduces us to an Arizona-based reality TV show whose spiky host, Quin Archer, specializes in helping victims track down the people who owe them more than just an apology. With “Payback’s” ratings tanking, the no-longer-so-mighty Quin has decided to put herself in the spotlight, going after the teacher who let her down in her teens more than 40 years ago — a woman who, when Quin turned up distraught at her door to report a rape, reacted with judgment instead of support: “You went to a strange man’s apartment? How could you have done that?”

If you know Gordon’s work, you may be doing a double take. Is this the same author who is best known for feminist novels, beginning with “Final Payments” in 1978, that champion women who seek work that sustains them even as they sustain family and friends? The same Mary Gordon whose characters hold themselves up to impossibly high standards and agonize obsessively over not making the mark?

Yes indeed. But relax: There’s plenty of eloquent brooding and lavishly expressed guilt in “Payback” too. But by setting up a clash of cultures and values between a decorous art teacher and the difficult student whose life she is convinced she ruined with a careless knee-jerk reaction, Gordon has produced her most topical and propulsive novel to date.

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Quin Archer is probably the least subtle character in Gordon’s pantheon. In 1972, when she was known as Heidi Stolz, she was “the least obviously lovable, certainly the least generous, the cruelest, the most begrudging” student at the Lydia Farnsworth School for Girls in Rhode Island. The only daughter of a pharmaceutical magnate and a former Austrian ski champion who makes Joan Crawford seem like a dear mommy, Heidi prompted the school’s headmistress to comment, “I’ve seen a lot of parents looking at their children, and I know the difference between the look that feeds and the look that starves.”

But Agnes Vaughan, the young art teacher in question, admires Heidi’s spark of originality and is determined to give her the encouragement she clearly lacks at home. Against her fellow teachers’ advice and her own better judgment, she singles out the surly girl for special attention. Most questionably, she arranges for the 16-year-old to attend a lecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art by herself one Saturday. When the devastated girl returns to Rhode Island that night, Agnes’ reaction compounds the trauma. Forever after, Agnes will turn her accusatory question (“How could you have done that?”) on herself, asking over and over (and over) how she could ever have blamed the victim.

The cover for "Payback" by Mary Gordon.
(Pantheon Books)
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Throughout the four-plus decades of Gordon’s not always adequately appreciated career, her concern has been with the emotional arc of lives, with a particular focus on turning points. This holds for both her fiction and nonfiction, including “The Shadow Man,” her intensely felt 1996 memoir about uncovering her father’s deliberately doctored and obfuscated identity. And it holds for “Payback.”

Gordon’s characters tend to be tough on themselves, convinced that diligent thinking and rethinking can untangle the knottiest problems. Few would call them lighthearted, but like the sympathetic Agnes, they are not narcissists. Her icy reality show host, in thrall to Ayn Rand’s ideology of selfishness, is a notable exception.

Forgiveness — or lack thereof — is central to “Payback. Both women move on and make lives for themselves, but neither can let go of what happened in 1972. Agnes can’t help wondering how a more sympathetic response might have changed Heidi, while Quin relishes what Gordon flagged in “The Love of My Youth” as the “satisfaction of a cherished bitterness.” The result is psychologically complex, if at times overwrought.

In Lynn Steger Strong’s ‘Want,’ a writer, teacher and mother faces up to her own privilege and the precariousness of her middle-class life.

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Gordon makes it evident early on that her narrative is headed for a showdown. We keep turning pages to find out how this long-awaited clash of the crass and the meek will play out.

The author has some fun with her least appealing character. High points include Quin’s hilarious defense of evil sisters Regan and Goneril in “King Lear” and her spleenful diatribe on what she loathes about New England (popovers, clam chowder, fall foliage).

But Heidi’s reinvented persona, Quin Archer, is a monster created by a monster mom, and her show, which feeds on her audience’s appetite for humiliation and rage, is monstrous too. Quin even adopts her mother’s cruel response to her childhood tears as her alter-ego’s trademark: “Blah blah blah and boo hoo hoo.”

So do we feel sorry for this wounded warrior? Or does she merely whet our own appetite for her eventual humiliation — the same way we long for the firing of a certain unprincipled real estate tycoon’s damaged son, in fulfillment of his own reality TV show’s cruel punchline?

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Gordon’s target isn’t just the insidious tenor of so much of what counts for entertainment these days. What she has set up in this clash of cultures and values is the “heroism of good manners” versus the brutality of a world in which the president, setting a coarse new tone, has “poisoned the air.” Gordon makes it clear how high the stakes are in this battle for decency.

Cline’s new collection of short stories, her followup to “The Girls,” features women performing their sexuality and older men in cancellation limbo.

Payback
Mary Gordon
Pantheon: 352 page, $28

McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor.


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