My friend Lindsay gave me this book to read; she said I’d love it but for some reason it took me forever to get around to reading it. When I finally did, I loved it–predictably, because Lindsay knows me quite well. I also came to realize that I’d read Laurie Colwin before, having been gifted her Home Cooking years ago. I never get rid of books I like but somehow I’ve misplaced Home Cooking–I’ll have to buy a replacement copy. This one, though, this short story collection from 1981, is something I should have landed on years ago. It’s how I felt when I finally read Stephanie Vaughn for the first time–these books have been around the entire time I have and yet I’m just reading them now? On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that there are so many literary soul mates yet to be discovered.
Speaking of Stephanie Vaughn–I promised a FB friend yesterday that I’d be making this comparison in my blog post about this book. The stories in The Lone Pilgrim plug in nicely in the neighborhoods of Stephanie Vaughn, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel. Short with great attention to sentence construction, wit, relationships and singularity, they are especially remarkable for their happy endings. Those other writers I’ve just listed probably have as many happy endings between them in their careers as Laurie Colwin has in this one book. It’s remarkable and something I didn’t realize is so unusual until I saw them here again and again.
Take, for example, the totally bonkers story “The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing.” It starts, “Once upon a time, I was Professor Thorne Speizer’s stoned wife, and what a time that was.” The story proceeds to be about how this very young, perpetually high woman marries her professor (he’s young, too–only six years older than she), hangs out with her pot dealer at the boys’ college they move to, and manages to get away with doing absolutely nothing but smoking up. When she is finally, belatedly discovered for what she is by her husband–“‘Thorne,’ I said, ‘I smoke marijuana unceasingly and always have. What do you think of that?…I have been stoned from the first moment you laid eyes on me and I am stoned now”–the shit does not hit the fan. She convinces him that high is an okay way to be and the story ends with the promise that the next couple of years found them HAVING FUN. That’s amazing in and of itself but then, when one adds the added layer of how hilarious the story is, how economical and precise and full of sexual politics, it is a minor miracle.
The story “A Girl Skating” is not so happy, but is phenomenal. It is about a young woman who is the unwitting muse of a “famous American poet,” who is in residence at the small college where the girl grows up, the child of academics. While his attention is a point of pride to the community, it is unsettling for the girl; he robs her of her own experiences through his writing. He writes about her losing her virginity before she actually does, spoiling her innocence more than any actual encounter might. It is a strange, moving story.
On the subject of the singularity of these stories, the descriptions of food are a great example. Laurie Colwin wrote about food, of course; I remember when reading Home Cooking how she talked about ingredients and combinations I have never heard anyone else approach. There’s this, from the story “Travel”:
I strained yogurt through cheesecloth to concentrate it, and I are it with pickled cabbage and salted Japanese plums. I cooked carrots with honey and garlic and ate them cold–the odd tastes of a solitary person. When I had people in to dinner, I spent days wondering what ordinary people ate. I gave my husband what I ate: a cup of thick yogurt; a plate of pickled cabbage, salted plums, and cold carrots; and some chicken cooked the way I liked it–with soy sauce, paprika, and clove. He ate what was set before him and never said he found the meal strange, which warmed me to him. It never occurred to me that he might have the same odd taste, or his own odd taste. Outside, the rain spun on intensely. My husband said, “I came over here to claim you, if that’s possible.”
When I looked at him, I realized that I had never wanted anyone so much in my life, so I claimed him, too.
A happy ending born from cold carrots and pickled cabbage!
This book is beautiful–you have to read it.