The Decorous Surfaces and Fraught Subtexts of Alice Adams’s Life and Work

The Decorous Surfaces and Fraught Subtexts of Alice Adams’s Life and Work

“Return Trips” is a typical exercise in perambulating free association, opening with the narrator’s tryst (in Yugoslavia yet) with a sweet-natured youth named Paul who will shortly die of a congenital heart defect; for the rest of the long story we’re reminded of Paul, here and there, as a kind of idealized alternative to the other men in the narrator’s life before and after — circling back to the ur-trauma, long ago in Hilton, when she was walking home with a boy and spotted her father kissing a strange woman in their wood-paneled Chrysler: “‘I hate him’ is what I thought.”

The perspective of the Fitzgeraldian hero — “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” — is most resonantly expressed in the pursuit of love, but one of the men with whom Adams pursued it, Saul Bellow, considered this a limitation of her first novel, “Careless Love”: “Women like your heroine do seem to live completely in relationships and think of very little apart from their own feminine happiness,” he wrote her. Such a formulation applied less and less to Adams’s mature work, whose heroines are certainly concerned with their own happiness, romantic and otherwise, but tend to be unhappy each in her own lonely way. Ardis Bascombe, in “Beautiful Girl,” is a North Carolina tobacco heiress and former beauty queen who spends her days, in San Francisco, getting drunk in her kitchen and mooning about the past. Lest one think this a simple matter of lost youth and looks, we learn — via a passing thought of Ardis’s daughter (Adams has a nice touch with narrative point of view) — that her mother “used to be so much fun” in a way that might explain why Ardis moved to San Francisco: “I sincerely hope that both my daughters marry them,” she once remarked to a Winston-Salem “real-estate woman” who wanted to keep blacks out of the neighborhood. “I understand those guys are really great. Not, unfortunately, from personal experience.”

Carol Sklenicka is a lucid, scrupulous writer, as readers of her acclaimed biography of Raymond Carver will attest. Her description of, say, a late-life surgical procedure that Adams endured — the ghastly “degloving” of her face to remove a tumor from her nasal cavity — would pass muster in a neurosurgeon’s how-to guide. Such a conscientious and (it must be said) rather humorless sensibility works well with inherently dramatic material, and so is perhaps better suited for a redemptive fable about the colossal alcoholic Carver, who somehow kicked both booze and the worst predations of his machete-wielding editor, Gordon Lish. By comparison, most of Adams’s life had a fairly decorous surface (“Never a harsh word”) whose fraught subtext needs teasing out by a subtle fiction artist. Consider: At Myrtle Wilson’s party in “The Great Gatsby,” Tom Buchanan breaks Myrtle’s nose, while, in Sklenicka’s first biography, a drunken Carver (“Bad Ray”) smashes a bottle upside the head of his long-suffering first wife, Maryann. Both are powerful scenes — and yet: In the first case what we remember most (among a mélange of other nuances) is Myrtle’s story about the way her drab husband had to borrow the suit he married her in. In “Alice Adams,” however, the prosaic remains decidedly prosaic. “The evidence of Adams’s letters, fiction and later notebooks suggests that Alice probably did not go ‘all the way’ with any of those Madison boys,” writes the meticulous Sklenicka, who sometimes injects gravitas into these early pages — “the disturbing news from Europe,” and so on — in ways that seem tangential, at best, to the immediate concerns of her teenage subject. Such historical digressions go on for a page or a paragraph, or else are woven into a single sentence like a discolored skin graft: “Back in Cambridge in the spring of 1945, as the Russians and Western Allies conquered Germany and revealed Nazi concentration camps to the world, Alice joined another short-story class with less satisfactory results.”

Once Adams’s professional career takes off, references to the wider world are largely obviated by discussions of her work, her book tours (and other travels) and her impressive royalty advances. Of her 11 novels, her most successful was “Superior Women” (1984), an all but explicit homage to Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” which gives a portrait of the author’s generation via the stories of a few friends from Vassar; in Adams’s novel, the friends are from Radcliffe. Fawcett Crest bought the paperback rights for a whopping $635,000 — perhaps the most noteworthy moment from that particular era in Adams’s life, as Sklenicka readily concedes: “As a result of her successful move into full-time authorship, the fiction she produced almost overshadows the biographical facts of her life in the early 1980s.” Almost. Another piquant aspect of the story is the way Adams’s life came to mirror that of her parents: Her oldest friend pointed out how Alice “was beginning to look like Agatha” — her homely, unhappy mother — at a time when she lived with a handsome interior decorator, Bob McNie, who drank and was probably bipolar like Adams’s father. After the relationship ended, belatedly, Adams cast doubt on the man’s reputation as “the only heterosexual decorator in San Francisco” with a novel, “Almost Perfect” (1993), that she’d provisionally titled her “Book of Bob.” (“We can be fairly certain that Alice did not invent the bisexual theme,” Sklenicka certifies, pointing out that McNie’s children found a large cache of gay pornography after his death.)

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