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

Portrait of a Writer
By Carol Sklenicka

By Blake Bailey

An admiring colleague said of the writer Alice Adams that she “threw a different kind of light on women and what they want, or think they want.” In one of Adams’s late stories, “Old Love Affairs” — published in The New Yorker less than four years before the author’s death in 1999 — Lucretia, a woman of a certain age, thinks she wants to have sex with a bearded fellow named Burt. After much effort he proves to be impotent, and instead moves “heavily, laboriously” downward to try a different approach. Lucretia feels sorry for him and pretends to enjoy herself so he’ll stop sooner. “It’s wonderful to give you pleasure,” he whispers into her ear afterward.

Usefully for her work, Adams was a pitiless romantic: pitiless in the Flaubertian sense — a kind of ideal objectivity — and yet always hoping for better things. This outlook may be traced, in part, to the misery of her Southern childhood, to her charming, tippling, manic-depressive rake of a father and her bitter mother, who lost her looks early and died in her 50s. The father, for his part, lived long enough to resent his daughter’s literary success — she noticed his “curious inability to find any magazine in which I was published” — and for good measure disinherited her in his will. “The deaths of parents,” Adams memorably observed, “dreadful and sad as they are, to an extent free writers.” Among the many fictional surrogates for her sad, self-absorbed parents are Emily and Lawrence Farr in “Roses, Rhododendron,” a couple whose “extreme courtesy” toward each other strikes the young narrator as odd: “Never a harsh word. (Of course, I did not know then about couples who cannot afford a single harsh word.)”

The disappointments of romance — “the great subject” of Adams’s life and work, as Carol Sklenicka writes in her new biography, “Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer” — were all the more muddled with her other great subject, family misery, given that her father’s psychiatrist seduced her as a teenager. Indeed, Adams’s youth was largely a matter of amassing material for the late-blooming literary career. The end of her dismal marriage to Mark Linenthal coincided with her first published story, “Winter Rain,” at 32, whereupon she resumed having love affairs for many years while “writing as a sort of sideline,” as she put it.

[ This biography was one of our most anticipated titles of December. See the full list. ]

As a writer Adams was often compared to Mary McCarthy, Jane Austen and John Updike, but her own favorite touchstone was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work she read again and again. “I don’t care for plot at all,” she replied when a friend dismissed her favorite Fitzgerald story, “The Rich Boy,” as “formless”; certainly Adams’s stories tend to proceed as a series of evocative, loosely ordered set pieces, impressions — or better just call them memories (“I really have no imagination at all,” she said, “just a terrific memory”) — revolving around the author’s childhood in Chapel Hill (often called Hilton in the stories), college at Radcliffe and later years in San Francisco.

“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.)

Sklenicka is prudent and appreciative in her assessment of Adams’s work, but gives no explanation, except obliquely, for the simple fact that Adams isn’t read anymore. Her novels, especially, are all but entirely forgotten. Describing her seventh, “Caroline’s Daughters” (1991), Sklenicka ticks off the lurid plot elements (“a Mafioso-style murder, domestic abuse and rape, a homeless former doctor’s wife, a stock-market crash and a restaurant teetering toward bankruptcy”), then reports that the novel sold poorly because of competition from Danielle Steel on “the sleaze side” and from the likes of Jane Smiley and Milan Kundera on “the literary side.” And yet as a writer of short stories — the genre for which she reserved her finer perceptions — Adams was one of only four writers to receive the O. Henry Special Award, the others being Updike, Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates. “The Stories of Alice Adams,” a vast and splendid collection republished by Vintage in November, may restore her to such august company.

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