In 2015, Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space, was browsing a sales rack at the Housing Works bookstore in Manhattan when she came across a memoir titled “W-3.” She was struck by the lively voice of the work and surprised that she had never heard of its author, Bette Howland.
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Howland, in fact, had a storied past. She had worked in small magazines, studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and had a long flirtatious correspondence with Saul Bellow, whom she had met at a writers’ conference when she was 24 and he had almost double that. She posted “W-3,” a candid recollection of her time in a psychiatric hospital, in 1974. Years earlier, as a single mother of two, Howland had attempted suicide in Bellow’s apartment while that he was out of town. In 1978, she published her second book, the collection “Blue in Chicago,” which won him a Guggenheim Fellowship. His third, “Things to Come and Go” (1983), helped her secure a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship the following year.
After that? Decades of silence.
Hughes set out to find Howland, and did – only to learn from his son Jacob that the 77-year-old writer wouldn’t be able to talk to him. The previous year, she had been hit by a truck on her way home from the grocery store. Already suffering from multiple sclerosis and dementia, Howland lost her ability to communicate: “His words scatter like vegetables bouncing on the asphalt. his son later wrote.
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Thus began Hughes’ mission to save Howland’s work from obscurity. In 2019, two years after Howland’s death at age 80, A Public Space reissued Howland’s “Calm sea and prosperous voyage”, a collection combining memoirs, essays and fiction published for the first time in TriQuarterly. Last year came out a new edition of “W-3”, and now we have a new edition of “Things Come and Go”, a thin volume containing three long and exuberant short stories.
As in the case of Lucia Berlin – a late and little-known author who won over a new generation of fans when her stories were republished as “A Handbook for Housekeepers” in 2015 – growing interest in Bette Howland’s work was aided by her son. Jacob Howland has written and spoken about his mother’s work and her lifelong depression in Commentary and elsewhere, sharing his suspicions that winning the MacArthur Fellowship in 1984 had “sapped her confidence”. It would be an understatement to say it’s a shame.
As Rumaan Alam points out in his introduction to “Things to Come and Go”, the strength of Howland’s work lies in the warmth and liveliness of his very personal voice. “She’s good company, cracking up on everything and everyone she sees.” Yes she is. But beneath the brilliant pattern and eye-catching descriptions, each story has sadness at its heart.
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In the collection’s first story, “Birds of a Feather,” a young first-person narrator dumps the dirt on her father’s family, first-generation working-class Jews – “the big yak-yakking copper Abarbanels “. The men are tall, swarthy and “manly pockmarked”, with “palpable noses” and when the women walk down the street, their arms tied, handbags dangling, “three pairs of hips upheld their skirts like sofas under the sheets”. (Howland was Jewish.)
While there’s plenty of action, there’s no overarching plot – the story is essentially a series of gossipy anecdotes and sassy character sketches. From her Uncle Reuben’s wife, Luellen: “What she loved was lying on the bed with her feet up – ten frosty pink toenails – smoking and reading confessional magazines.”
Of her “very handsome” boyfriend Donny: “He had that kind of curly grape-like hair that statues have, and his nose also looked like that of a statue; broken.
From her unmarried aunt Honey: “Honey’s hair was red these days, medicinal red, the color of the cough syrup on the shelves at Dykstra; her face was as powdered and prickly as the vaccination mark on her arm.
Even when bad things happen — deaths, breakups, bad behavior — the emotional tone remains pleasant and even. These “birds of a feather” may be related by blood and likeness, but what about love? Essayist Johanna Kaplan, who reviewed the book when it was released in 1983, called “Birds of a Feather” a story of “terrifying emotional coldness.” Very well hidden, however, behind a flood of energetic narration.
The second story, “The Old Wheeze”, revolves around the problem of love in a different way, introducing four characters and taking their points of view in turn. Mrs. Cheatham is an older black woman who works as a babysitter for a little boy named Mark. Her single mother, Sydney, is dating a much older man named Leo, who brings Mrs. Cheatham home at the end of those evenings.
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Lonely Mrs. Cheatham is troubled by Leo’s attempts to flirt with her and bond with her during their journeys. Eventually, she understands – he must be a liberal. This explains that. Sydney is intimidated by Mrs Cheatham and by motherhood in general. “She loved [Mark] recklessly, sometimes frantically – hugging him like she was his life, his breath, and she could barely catch him. Yet, deep in her heart, she suspected that almost anyone would be better at their job, more skilled, than she was. Her relationship with Leo, a professor at the college she attends, came about following the breakdown of her first marriage, and although she had focused her hopes of happiness on him, she sees that he does not love her. only because she is pretty and young.
The final story, “The Life You Gave Me”, also revolves around an imperfect parent-child bond. A woman flew to Florida to see her father after surgery. They say he’ll be fine, but she knows the reprieve is temporary; there was another health scare 10 years ago, and – “Well? What are we waiting for? We know what’s coming, don’t we?” With the inevitable loss stares her in the face, there are things she should say but doesn’t know if she’ll find the words and isn’t ready to let it go.
The narrator distracts herself from the angst of the immediate situation with meditations on her father’s life and character, and observations on Florida’s climate and landscape. “South Florida builders are like God in the universe. Their work is everywhere, but they are nowhere to be found. They move on, leaving the Gardens of Eden everywhere, and nothing quite finished.
Perhaps the same could be said of Bette Howland.
A public space. 156 pages. Paperback, $16.95
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