New book applies familial angst with a trowel
By Yosha Bourgea
KAY MCLEOD needs therapy. Her father, Francis, is a successful architect and a world-class alcoholic. Her mother, Ida, has just had her second leg amputated because of gangrene, and she's an alcoholic as well. Kay is married to Neal, a humor-impaired vegetarian who forgets anniversaries, steals inheritance money, and can't get it up in bed. None of these people are nice to Kay, who, in addition to being an alcoholic, is a lifelong doormat.
This is the bleak setup for Molly Giles' Iron Shoes (Simon & Schuster; $22), another dysfunctional-American-family story. As a perusal of the racks in any bookstore will show, this genre is alive and well. The best examples are, naturally, the ones that surprise and enlighten us with insights into character and variations on the form.
Iron Shoes is not one of those. Although it has flashes of original style, it is maddeningly obvious on the whole. Heavy on the pop psychology terms, it unfolds with the sincerity and predictability of an Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet.
Ida, the caustic matriarch of the family, is dying. She has hallucinations of a blue horse that stands outside her hospital window and talks to her, but she's still lucid enough to torment Kay, her easiest target, with a shrewd combination of guilt and insult. Some of the most bracing moments come early in the book, during Kay's visits to the hospital, as when she contemplates her mother's amputated limbs: "This new stump was rawer. Ruder. More butchered-looking. Meat, Kay thought. That's what we're made of. No wonder Neal won't touch me."
Passages like these are alive with energy and risk, but many others suffer from clichéd phrases and awkward puns ("another day, another dolor") or simply work too hard to impress.
Part of the problem is the use by Giles (a former North Bay resident and author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated short-story collection Rough Translations) of a third-person perspective that shifts among Kay, Francis, and Ida--a technique that permits a view into the mind of each key character.
Here, it softens the emotional impact by reminding us that the private thoughts we're reading have been paraphrased by an intermediary. To make matters worse, these secondhand interior monologues are weakened by stretches of stagy exposition that render the characters less believable.
Neal in particular is a caricature, a composite of male hang-ups. He is critical and dismissive of Kay ("Don't spiral," he sniffs when she gets upset); he stops in the middle of sex to take out the trash; he wears the same socks three days in a row. In short, he has no redeeming value.
As a device to elicit sympathy for the novel's heroine, Neal backfires; he's so spectacularly awful that we begin to question the intelligence of a woman who would choose to stay with him. Kay endures so much emotional abuse, with so little insight into her experience, that it becomes deeply frustrating to watch her.
There is redemption, however--that's a prerequisite of the form. After a particularly self-destructive night, Kay confronts her family and her husband, makes peace with herself, and quits drinking. But the climax comes without a buildup, and the aftermath feels tacked on.
The novel's title comes from a fairy tale Kay tells her son, Nicky, about an evil troll who tricks a king and queen into putting on heavy iron shoes they can't remove. It's a good metaphor for the burdens Kay endures. But it also works for the book, which is heavier than it needs to be and goes nowhere. ®
Molly Giles reads from 'Iron Shoes' on Friday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. at Copperfield's Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. For details, call 707/762-0563.
From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.