Fear and Loathing in Rhode Island

By Julia Bucci / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather by Jincy Willett (Thomas Dunne).

By page thirty of Jincy Willett’s ruthless and uproariously funny first novel, I was laughing so hard that tears ran down my cheeks. One of Willett’s many gifts, I realized by page 300, is her ability to hold readers in a paradoxical thrall: laughing with an ache in the throat, chuckling while flinching at her devastating criticisms of—well, all of us. This wryly titled book is a novel of disastrous relationships, the ludicrous pretensions of the literati—and yes, really bad weather.

The weather is Rhode Island’s, and anyone who has spent time in what Willett dubs the Panic State will relish her descriptions of its inhabitants. She burlesques a motley collection of those “Not From Around Here” (the widow of engineering professor Ed Kornhauser, Willett puts Brown University wives in a distinct subcategory of outsiders). Then there are the lifers: “Rhode Island natives, including those born overseas, are under ordinary circumstances so shy and mistrustful around people they don’t know as to seem almost deranged. They never look a stranger in the eye, or if they do, they unfocus their own eyes. I don’t mean a stranger you pass in the street, I mean a stranger who’s lived next door to you for twenty-five years, or a stranger you ask directions from or hand his dropped wallet to or knock down with your car.”

So speaks Dorcas Mather, the novel’s brilliant, unreliable narrator, a spinsterish librarian in her forties who is so vulnerable and cynical about people as to seem almost deranged. Dorcas is celibate —“when I was twelve I took a long, slow look around and said, ‘Nope. Not for me’”—though she’s been engaged in a lifelong love affair with reading. “When it comes to books,” she confides, “I am a sensuous woman.” Abigail Mather is Dorcas’s twin and opposite. A woman of voracious appetites who lost her virginity to the football team at fourteen and has since enthusiastically maintained her reputation as “the town pump,” Abigail plays Dionysus to Dorcas’s Apollo.

The story unfolds in flashbacks and revisions. As a hurricane bears down on Rhode Island, and neighbors busily tape their windows or race through grocery stores “like contestants of that old game show where you had five minutes to load up,” Dorcas comes to work in the town library. Her task for the day is to catalog a new book, In the Driver’s Seat: The Abigail Mather Story, written by her sister, now in jail, and the gloriously dense ghostwriter Hilda DeVilbiss. Brandishing a flask of scotch (“I’m not a drunk, by the way. It’s going to be a long day, that’s all”), Dorcas critiques Hilda’s hackneyed defense of the circumstances that led Abigail to murder her husband, Conrad Lowe. Abigail’s memoir is familiar—abused wife kills her abuser, while feminists everywhere rally to the cause—but Dorcas’s droll, iconoclastic revisions make it new, calling into question every presumption from political correctness to literary success.

Dorcas skewers Hilda’s National Book Award–winning husband, Guy, an acclaimed poet who takes his pseudo-feminism so seriously that he “makes Kate Millet look like Barbara Cartland.” The loathsome Conrad—a gynecologist-turned-bestselling-author—corners women at parties only to torment them with vivid explanations of why he quit practicing gynecology.

The plot may be predictable, but the literary terrain isn’t. Early in the story, Dorcas describes the minister who marries Abigail and Conrad as someone who “radiated despair to such a degree that I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. He looked like a man in hell.” Dorcas, finally, is not unlike that minister; she radiates despair to such a degree that readers will not be able to avert their eyes. She and Abigail are women in hell, but it is a hell ultimately redeemed by their kinship and by Dorcas’s touchingly sarcastic mercy. Readers looking for a single, unifying effect will be frustrated even as they admire this fabulous novel: it is tragedy bubbling with wit—and comedy penned with an X-Acto knife.

Julia Bucci writes and teaches English in Providence.
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January / February 2004