Evan S. Connell: Bridging the Islands

Any man's death diminishes us, but when an artist passes away we lose not just an island but an entire archipelago. Evan S. Connell, who died in February of this year, began his literary career by publishing short stories but first made his name with a widely beloved novel, Mrs. Bridge (1955), an account of  a country club matron's life in 1920s and '30s Kansas City. Told in very brief chapters of usually just two or three pages, Mrs. Bridge's story reminds us that the mass of middle-class women in that era truly did lead lives of quiet desperation.

What is especially striking about the book, however, is Connell's voice on the page -- clinically precise, often ironically deadpan, but always slightly doleful, almost brokenhearted. Here is a writer who comes not to mock but to understand. Connell recreates Mrs. Bridge's mind and sensibility through realistic vignettes coupled with the most delicate, charming observations. How might you describe a new wife's reactions to the sexual eagerness of her young husband? Connell writes: "For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep." But passion is seldom equitable. "Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men."

Mr. Bridge, devoted to his wife and three children, determines to give them the best, and -- true to the ethos of the time -- redoubles his efforts at his law office, working late into the night, every night. He never realizes that he may have bought his family every luxury but shortchanged them of the one thing they most wanted -- his presence in their lives.

Mrs. Bridge's own day-to-day existence is regulated by convention and public opinion. She lunches with friends, judges people by their shoes and their table manners, avoids unpleasantness of any kind. She naturally feels obliged to dress correctly at all times, and she always wears stockings: "In summer this could be uncomfortable, but it was the way things were, it was the way thing had always been, and so she complied." At Auxiliary meetings and cocktail parties Mrs.. Bridge's conversation instinctively revolves around "the by-laws of certain committees, antique silver, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, the price of margarine, as compared to butter, or what the hemline was expected to do." When at Christmas she drives by a house with an elaborate holiday lights display and a gigantic cake that proclaims "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus," her reaction is: "My word, how extreme. Some Italians must live there."

At the same time, whenever her friend Grace starts to discuss art or politics, Mrs. Bridge grows uneasy. She recognizes her own hunger for something more from life yet cannot quite fathom Grace's existential despair. Neither does she suspect the lesbian nature of their friend Mabel, who "was a vigorous, muscular woman of about thirty five, with a sprinkling of moles on her forehead, and close-cropped hair, who generally wore a tweed coat and stood with her hands thrust into the pockets like a man."  

Mrs. Bridge genuinely loves her children, yet they remain mysterious to her. Beautiful daughter Ruth flees to New York as soon as she graduates from high school. Carolyn marries a hardworking but poor young businessman and soon finds herself unhappy because there isn't a decent golf course in his provincial hometown. When we last see the Tom Sawyer–like Douglas, he has enlisted in the army shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

As the children gradually go off on their own, Mrs. Bridge succumbs to periodic panic: "She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know. Surely someone would call, someone must be needing her. Yet each day proceeded like the one before. Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened. Time did not move. The home, the city, the nation, and life itself were eternal; still she had the foreboding that one day, without warning and without pity, all the dear, important things would be destroyed."

There are books of such consummate perfection that we need only read a page and we surrender to their enchantment. Pride and Prejudice is such a book, and so is Mrs. Bridge.

Twenty years after this modern classic, Connell would produce its obvious counterpart, Mr. Bridge, almost equally fine. But in those intervening two decades he also wrote short stories, narrative poems  (Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, Points for a Compass Rose) and a chilling, mesmerizing masterpiece, The Diary of a Rapist (1966).

Once again, Connell slowly builds up a portrait of his main character through a series of short vignettes, in this case, the narrator's daily scribblings in a secret notebook. His very first entry only hints at what is to come: "January 1 -- Last night Bianca shook me awake and told me to stop grinding my teeth. Nothing gives her more satisfaction than to humiliate me."


Earl Summerfield is a low-level bureaucrat, working in San Francisco's Bureau of Unemployment. He is in his late twenties, married to Bianca, seven years his senior, and he feels frustrated. For some reason, his superior intelligence and obvious merits aren't being properly recognized and rewarded. "I know I'm exceptional, sure of it, just that so far nobody's given me the chance." Yet what follows isn't just a 1960s American version of one of those black-humored Russian novellas, like Gogol's Diary of a Madman, about an insulted and injured petty functionary. This is an account from within, brilliant in every detail, about the making of a monster.

Abnormally sensitive and constantly shocked at the world's wickedness, Earl keeps a scrapbook into which he pastes clippings about murder, rape, and torture -- all signs, in his view, of universal depravity. Women, of course, are largely to blame. They "never experience the world as it truly is.... Their only urge is toward personal satisfaction, weakening a man & sucking away the power. Jellies, mold that grows on bread, rind of rotting fruit, infection, suppuration, evil odors that drift around during the night, colorless poisons, caverns full of dead little bodies. Unclean alchemies. Yes, that tells the story of them."

Earl's wife, Bianca, tutors a pair of teenage girls who, he can tell, are promiscuous sluts, salaciously flaunting their bodies at him. "There's not much decency left in the world, that's my opinion. But of course I'm too romantic, I expect too much." More and more, he realizes that nosey Bianca needs slapping; sometimes he fantasizes about slicing her open. At the same time, he sometimes imagines himself as a shy young girl. Home alone one night, he laces himself into one of Bianca's girdles, puts on her stockings and hat, parades before a mirror.

By this point, Earl has already begun to follow women on the street. Sometimes at night he actually enters people's houses,  stealing unimportant objects, leaving his defecatory "Calling Card," or doing things he can't quite remember. During the day he complains of being constantly scrutinized. "Every time I turn around I find somebody staring at me." People at work, he writes, "take me for the mildest little fellow on earth. What would they say if I walked into that office tomorrow with a gun?" His diatribes grow visionary and biblical: "Moab shall be as Sodom and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even to the breeding of nettles. Salpits & perpetual desolation."
 
When Earl glimpses the young beauty queen Mara St. Johns during a beachside festival, he recognizes that this supposed honor student, engaged to a promising young man, is nothing but a whited sepulchre, a whore eager to do it with anyone. Has she no shame? How can the world be so blind to her filth? Shortly thereafter, he learns that Mara conducts a Bible study class at a local church. Earl looks up the address of the church.

If Mrs. Bridge is a novel about the banality of privileged women's lives, The Diary of a Rapist reflects the banality, and delusive logic, of evil. It's a book as perfectly controlled artistically as John Fowles's The Collector, as disturbing as Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

In 1980 Connell, long known for trying his hand at different genres, produced a surprise bestseller: Son of the Morning Star, a study of George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Still, this long book could be viewed as just the centerpiece to a series of much shorter essays that Connell had been writing about the curious and romantic byways of history. Collected in A Long Desire (1979) and The White Lantern (1981) -- and both combined in The Aztec Treasure House (2001) -- these essays explored the origins of sunken Atlantis and  mysterious Mu, tracked the Norse discovery of America (including the possibility of a Viking-Indian battle in Minnesota), and outlined the medieval belief in Prester John, an all-powerful Christian emperor of the East. Connell took up the quest for El Dorado, chronicled the search for the Missing Link, summarized the career of the alchemist Paracelsus, and traced the astonishing wanderings around the known world of the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Batuta, who covered at least 75,000 miles in all.

These marvel-filled armchair adventures are, as I once wrote, "a twenty-part testament to the joy of finding things out." No matter what the subject, though, Connell remains a consummate storyteller: "Present wisdom holds that the last unadulterated Neanderthal died 40,000 years ago. However, one April evening in 1907 some Russian explorers..." Who could stop reading at that point?

In his later years, Connell continued to write fiction, notably a massive historical romance about the Crusades, Deus Lo Volt, but he also gathered up his short fiction in several volumes. In "Mademoiselle from Kansas City," one of the stories included in Saint Augustine's Pigeon, we learn that Mrs. Bridge's daughter Ruth became a high-priced call girl in Manhattan. The title story  focuses on still another character familiar to Connell readers: an insurance salesman named Muhlbach, who was the protagonist of The Connoisseur, a 1974 novel about the collecting instinct. In "Saint Augustine's Pigeon," Mulhbach -- still hurting from the death of his wife from cancer -- wanders through Manhattan, looking for love. In the course of one night the desperate forty-something is bedeviled by a female beatnik, startled by the brazen sexuality of a movie actress, and tantalized by exotic dancers: "How do you acquire a belly dancer for a mistress?" Seriously drunk, he seizes the hand of a cocktail waitress, who immediately calls for help. Mulhlbach is doomed to erotic disappointment and he knows it. But in him a good many aging males will recognize themselves. "He is a man, no matter what else; lecherous and unrepentant in the depths of exhaustion, desirous of much more than can be reckoned; muddied by concupiscence; made wild with shadowy loves; halted by the short links of mortality and deafened by conceit; seldom at peace; adulterous and bitter; stuck and bled by thorns on every side; rank with imagined sin; exiled forever and yet ever returning, such he is."

While some of Evan S. Connell's many titles remain in print, I was shocked that my local library no longer stocks any of his fiction. In bookstores you may occasionally turn up paperback copies of  Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge; in 2004 The Diary of a Rapist was reissued by New York Review Books. Yet Connell remains one of those writers greater than any single work. His books are various in their themes, styles and genres, but nearly all of them are wonderful.

 

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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