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Ellen Gilchrist’s 16th book to date contains a novella, The Cabal, and five short stories. The stories are mainly lively and pleasing; The Cabal, though it begins with bounce and is bolstered by a terrific plot, remains rickety. Gilchrist’s many fans will likely forgive her, however, because the book contains much of her trademark sass and patient exploration of quotidian events and characters, not to mention new glimpses of favorite old characters.
The Cabal opens the book and itself begins with gusto, offering a most enticing premise: “This is the story of a group of people who had a bizarre thing happen to them. Their psychiatrist went crazy and started injecting himself with drugs. The most useful and dependable man in their lives became a maniac in the true sense of the word.”
That a psychiatrist is deemed “the most useful and dependable man in their lives” says quite a lot about this particular group, bringing to mind Nabokov’s memorable quip that he could “not conceive how anybody in his right mind should go to a psychoanalyst, but of course if one’s mind is deranged one might try anything.”
Deranged or not, when Dr. Jaspers begins revealing intimate secrets, what these people have is a serious problem. Jaspers first manifests his insanity at a funeral. The deceased is Jean Lyles, a wealthy dame who, until her death, presided over other wealthy citizens of Jackson, Miss., who are devoted to the theatrical arts. The group is known as “the cabal.” They are good gossips all, inclined toward the theater; some of them good actors, too. They have all seen fit to equip themselves with the services of Dr. Jaspers, and when he begins running down the aisle of the church at the funeral and later strips naked and starts spouting at a postfuneral get-together, they begin to wonder how they can keep his mouth shut.
Here is Jaspers, atop a patio wall, telling off a cabalist who wants him to come down and get dressed:
“Fuck you, William,” Jim yelled. “Did I call the Internal Revenue Service when you were making tax shelters out of nursing homes in Pearl? Did I call your wife when you screwed her in the divorce? Get your hands off me. I am enlightened and you are a speck of dust.”
As various notable Jacksonians who have been Jaspers’ clients begin learning of his crack-up, Gilchrist’s pot begins to boil nicely. Wives are set against husbands, business partners against business partners, and children against parents as Jaspers, Jackson’s court jester, drives from place to place making unwanted pronouncements. Everyone wants to save Jaspers from himself, but they also very much want to save themselves from Jaspers. One fellow, who is not a part of the cabal, informs a friend that he wants Jaspers stopped by any means necessary.
Add to the mix the arrival of a young woman named Caroline Jones, an attractive poet who once taught at Yale but then began “whoring for the movies”—that is, wasting her talents on screenplays that never got made or paid for. Caroline has returned to the South to get her bearings and to take a job at Millsaps, a small
liberal-arts college in Jackson. She moves in with her old college chum Augustus, arriving with a bang:
Caroline Jones was driving her Cabriolet to Mississippi as fast as she dared, watching ahead for cops and passing on the left side….She was going to Millsaps College to fill in for a poet who had died the week before. The poet had been a black woman with an attitude so big no one was surprised when she died and only a few people were sorry.
These are the makings of an exciting story, to say the least. But the vibrant writing at the beginning of The Cabal soon fades into workaday prose, and the great promise of Gilchrist’s wonderful premise is never fulfilled. The story is quickly saturated with worn descriptions and threadbare thoughts. To take one example, Caroline sees Augustus and muses: “He was so agile and strong, besides being handsome, that it made Caroline sick to think he was gay. Goddamn all the goodlooking men being gay, she decided. It isn’t fair. It proves there is no God.”
Not to other gay men, it doesn’t, though, theological debates aside, what is wrong with such stuff is that it is cliched beyond endurance and arguably out of character. Does a former Yale professor and nationally known poet really conjure up such blather when faced with a good-looking homosexual?
Well, perhaps. No doubt the most careful of us are more often than we realize engaged in what Proust regarded as one of the greatest transgressions in life: banality. Part of Gilchrist’s territory is the everyday aspect of human life, but from a writer of stature, we demand that even prosaic circumstances be treated with verve and originality. It is perfectly fine for a writer to depict banality, but it is not fine for the writer to do so in a banal fashion.
It would be one thing if Caroline thought this way only once in a while, or if such thinking amounted to a strange quirk in an otherwise interesting person, or if we were meant to take her as someone shallow, but her reflections are routinely on this level. So are the reflections of most of the other characters; so is the narrative itself. And even the plot, so wonderfully conceived, is brought to a fizzle of a conclusion.
The stories fare better. In fact, the first of the collection, “The Sanguine Blood of Men,” which serves as a prelude to Caroline’s move to Jackson, allows us a much sharper glimpse of a much savvier Caroline in the hands of a much more inspired Gilchrist.
Caroline is living in San Francisco with another Southern expat, her cousin LeLe, who works for the Chronicle. Caroline is writing a screenplay for a producer named Sidney Mills. Gilchrist nails Mills from the start: “He had a little bitty dick the size of a finger and sometimes, but not often, it got hard and became the size of a thumb.” Mills has money and some prestige, but no character, grace, or class. His only two successful films were The Baby in His Head and a sequel, Will the Baby Never Shut Up?. “Sidney had stolen the idea from a short story a southern woman had written in the 1930s,” Gilchrist informs us.
Caroline is considering leaving town but checks with Mills one last time to see about her script, The Sanguine Blood of Men. Mills asks for sex—which convinces Caroline it is indeed time to head back South, leaving Mills to—who else?—his psychiatrist: “‘I’ve been rejected twice in an hour,’ he told the doctor. ‘I’m dealing with it. They are not my mother.’”
LeLe wants Caroline to stay, but Caroline explains her decision: Among other reasons, “‘[T]hey judge everyone on their political correctness scale and they want you to teach those stupid women writers who whine and moan all the time. The school of resentment, that’s all there is out here in the English departments. I’m tired of pretending to think it’s valid.’”
The remaining stories in Gilchrist’s collection are almost as good. “Hearts of Dixie” is told from the vantage of Jean Lyles’ secretary, who has found a box of Krugerrands plus a stack of letters from Miss Jean to each of her children. The letters reveal the worst about her progeny and let us in on more Jackson secrets concerning the cabal. “Bare Ruined Choirs, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” is a sweet story of a middle-aged man and woman who fall in love. In each of these tales, Gilchrist writes with zest and humor and pays close attention to her characters.
As usual, the best lines go to the villain, in this case, “Sanguine”‘s Sidney Mills: “He went singing out of the building and down into the parking lot to pick up the Lexus his wife had made him buy from his brother-in-law and drive it home. I’m giving this piece of junk away, he decided. I don’t have to drive a Lexus to town just because Sam Walton drove a truck.”
This is the kind of thing admirers of Gilchrist savor. In just a few lines, she has brought into perspective the shallow, cash-flush world of motion pictures. Poor Sidney, slumming around in a Lexus. Let’s hope Caroline will return to California soon so Gilchrist can continue with such sharp satire. CP