Thursday, March 18, 2021

Why Milwaukee? Bernice Rubens, Kazuo Ishiguro, and the meaning of a city

Recently we hosted Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel Klara and the Sun, along with Left Bank Books and Anderson’s Bookshops. The nice thing about these smaller multi-store events is we still get a chance to say hello to the audience and greet the author. Coming up we’re doing a larger multi-store where we just get a shout out and don’t say hello to anyone. Sigh.

Ishiguro, and since everyone else called him Ish, I will too, was in conversation with Ron Charles of The Washington Post and Totally Hip Book Review, who did a great job. Because it’s a ticketed event, alas, we don’t make the programs public, but take my word for it, and that of all the folks who attended who thanked us afterwards. Attendees got to ask questions, but with just an hour, there certainly wasn’t time for all of them. And because our friend from Left Bank was facilitating questions, there was one question that got asked by several of you that wasn’t addressed.

Why Milwaukee?

On page 190 of Klara, Chrissie, the mom, notes that her ex-husband has been replaced by automation and wonders if that bothers him. And when he says no, she asks about his friend in Milwaukee, the judge. Read into that. Judges are replaced with artificial intelligence. It could happen.

Pat spoke for all of us when she asked why Milwaukee was referenced. What did Milwaukee mean to Ish? I asked in the virtual green room. But alas, it didn’t mean anything at all – it just grounded the story in the United States. Ish had a Milwaukee memory, as he’d been here once many years ago, where he had a good pork chop. No, the best pork chop he ever had. And Pat wondered, Karl Ratzsch's? Apparently Milwaukee and that pork chop made it into an Ishiguro short story.

I know what Pat thought when she asked. So often in literature, Milwaukee has filled in for nowhere, filled with boring rubes, the place you want to escape. I recall just before moving to Milwaukee, seeing for the first time one of my favorite films, Parting Glances, which I guess is notably now for being the first appearance of Steve Buscemi*. Michael, who I considered the main character, was from Milwaukee, but he left for New York for the usual reasons, the relative innocent chasing the big city. And I asked the usual question, why Milwaukee?

It was only years later post internet that I learned that Michael was from Milwaukee because the actor Richard Ganoung was from Lake Geneva and then Madison, and had even worked with the Milwaukee Rep. That’s right, it was another pork chop.

So as I was trying to keep to my resolution to read one book a month that was more than two years old (very difficult for a bookseller), my eye turned toward Milwaukee, by Bernice Rubens. The book was never published in the United States, but came out from Little, Brown UK in 2001 and in paperback the following year. A customer was selling us second-hand books and included this, which they had bought second-hand for $6.50. The pencil mark was still on the endpaper. And I thought, how can I not read this? Someday?

While Bernice Rubens is not familiar to too many American readers, she won the Booker Prize for The Elected Member in 1970. I didn’t read that one, but I did read five of her other books in the 1980s – Madame Sousatzka (adapted into a Shirley MacLaine film), I Sent a Letter to My Love, Spring Sonata, Mr. Wakefield’s Crusade, and Our Father, which I still own - the Doubleday hardcover edition.**

I discovered Rubens through the late editor Patrick O’Connor, who came to Warner Books (where I worked) with the acquisition of Popular Library. He had a penchant for putting literary novels in mass market, which once was a thing. Through him, we published A Dance to the Music of Time in twelve volumes, which I still own but just barely, as they are disintegrating. Later on, someone else did the series in four trade paperbacks, which made more sense to me. And I’m pretty positive it was O’Connor who brought the Rubens books to Warner too. I have this memory of him talking about them.

I don’t know how I felt about the first three books I read of hers, but my note on Mr. Wakefield’s Crusade says, “Pym-ish plot loaded with Rubens’s grotesqueries.” As for Our Father, it was my #1 book of December 1987 (I rated them then). I wrote “Veronica Smiles, the explorer of deserts the way her mother climbed mountains and her grandmother delved (SIC) caves, meets God on her travels, and the Lord returns with her to England, quoting Biblical verse to fit the occasion.” I called her humor kinky.

But soon after that, the books stopped being published in the United States, or perhaps they weren’t targeting them to booksellers, and I missed the next 12 before she passed away in 2004. I’m only sad because I wound up liking Milwaukee a lot, though my guess is that trying to hand-sell Rubens might be as rewarding as banging my head against a wall. In the 1990s, I was a buyer and could only hand-sell in a wholesale fashion, meaning that I would convince a bookseller to read a book, and they would tell customers. It’s also a thing.

Milwaukee is what I call an Evening deathbed novel, named after Susan Minot’s novel, where a character remembers their life while on drifting in and out of consciousness. Annie is at hospice with only weeks to live, estranged from her daughter Mary and her late husband Freddie. Her only visitor is her old friend Clemmie.

Like Our Father, this is the story of three generations of women. When Annie became pregnant as a teenager, her parents threw her out of the house, and she went to live with her aunt and uncle. Her father soon died (on the golf course) and her mother blamed her for the death. She raised her daughter Mary, telling her that her father was a soldier who died on the front. But when Mary is heading off to Oxford, Annie’s mother reveals that the dad is not really dead. The only clue beyond a hint of a name, is that he’s from Milwaukee. So Annie goes off to find him and comes back with Jimmy, only Annie can’t remember him because she’s blocked almost all details from her memory. A series of reversals and revenges ensue, remembered as Annie further deteriorates.

I love the way Rubens’s characters can’t help themselves avoid bad behavior. There isn't the craziness of Our Father, no God character, but there are a few bordering-on-crazy twists. Mostly there’s this truth about our human natures – even when we are trying to be good, we’re going to do some things that are not so good, and we’re going to regret them.

In this case, Milwaukee is not just a side note - it’s a major motif running through the book. Yet it’s fairly clear that for Rubens, it was just an idea. There’s not even a pork chop to ground it***. There’s really only one detail about the city in the whole novel, and I’m not giving anything away by quoting the final line: “Milwaukee. It’s in Wisconsin.” Indeed.

Addendum: I told Pat about reading Milwaukee and she quickly sent back a photo of the paperback, which is on her bookshelf, unread.

*And of Kathy Kinney, who played Mimi on the Drew Carey Show, a very different career arc, but one that made a lot of people happy.

**Tucked into the jacket was the New York Times obituary from 2004. Cutting out clips? That also used to be a thing.

***That's ground pork to you

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