Things to Come and Go

  • Review
By – June 27, 2022

To dis­cov­er a voice from the past is to hear for the first time what’s long ago been spo­ken; it’s like look­ing up at the stars, com­muning with a long-ago light. Every book speaks from the past, but to read a back-in-print book by a for­got­ten writer is a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence than read­ing the clas­sics, whose pages seem well worn even if your own copy is unused. After read­ing Things to Come and Go, a col­lec­tion of three novel­las by the Chica­go-born writer Bette How­land, who was born dur­ing the Depres­sion and died in 2017, you might want to say the she­hecheyanu, the prayer that cel­e­brates doing some­thing spe­cial and new.

How­land is a true orig­i­nal, but her work seems in con­ver­sa­tion with that of beloved and bet­ter-known Jew­ish writ­ers. Like Grace Paley, How­land carves out a first-per­son voice that’s brash, unshy, and know­ing but nev­er ingra­ti­at­ing. From Birds of a Feath­er,” the first of the book’s three novellas:

Your skin is so snooth and cre­any,” he said.

I’m sor­ry, but that’s what he said. He was breath­ing hard through his mashed-in nose.

And like Cyn­thia Ozick, How­land writes prose piled up with fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage. Here’s the nar­ra­tor of the final novel­la, The Life You Gave Me,” describ­ing her mother:

Her hair is cut short, shin­gled, cling­ing to her cheeks — her face enclosed in white petals — like the fan­cy rub­ber bathing caps ladies wear down here. Her shoul­ders stoop. (Since when?) Her elbows stick out. (How long has this been going on?) Her legs, big knee-knobs, are two thick black bones.

Aris­to­tle decreed that a metaphor must be appro­pri­ate yet strange — a tricky thing to do. To describe a pair of per­ilous­ly tanned legs as thick black bones is cer­tain­ly sur­pris­ing, but per­haps not quite apt. How­land sprays her pages with metaphors, not all of which stick.

But maybe this is beside the point. How­land is a mas­ter of voice, and the metaphors that don’t come off still make an impact, reflect­ing more on the nar­ra­tor than on the world around her.

Plot is sec­ondary in these works and can come across as unfo­cused, as in The Life You Gave Me,” where the nar­ra­tor digress­es, enter­tain­ing­ly, about Florida’s odd­i­ties in a sto­ry dom­i­nat­ed by two tough char­ac­ters: her abu­sive father, now grave­ly injured and lying in a hos­pi­tal bed, and her unfeel­ing moth­er. But many read­ers will be grate­ful for the dark humor leav­en­ing a seri­ous sub­ject. For exam­ple, the nar­ra­tor con­jures, with utter dead­pan, the stock expres­sions that her moth­er repeat­ed to min­i­mize her husband’s vio­lence against his young daughters:

He doesn’t mean it.

This hurts him more than it hurts you.

You know he real­ly loves you.

Such restraint makes an impact, con­jur­ing child­hood pain from an adult’s point of view and try­ing to move beyond it.

And while How­land veers from lin­ear nar­ra­tive, she still gen­er­ates a rest­less, often bur­lesque ener­gy that pro­pels these pieces forward.

The The Old Wheeze” isn’t as strong as the two, more Jew­ish novel­las between which it is sand­wiched. It’s a fine study of three char­ac­ters, rotat­ing through their points of view in a way that empha­sizes their alone­ness. But as a writer How­land clear­ly feeds off the gang­stery work­ing-class Jew­ish milieu she knows so well and describes in such lov­ing detail.

Along with the pub­li­ca­tion by A Pub­lic Space Books of two oth­er of her books—W‑3: A Mem­oir and Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age—the reis­sue of Things to Come and Go should intro­duce Bette How­land to a new gen­er­a­tion. With her hilar­i­ous, wise, and mov­ing por­tray­als of a van­ished world, How­land is a writer who deserves to be remembered.

Jason K. Fried­man earned a B.A. from Yale and an M.A. from the Johns Hop­kins Writ­ing Sem­i­nars. His work has appeared in lit­er­ary jour­nals and been anthol­o­gized in Best Amer­i­can Gay Fic­tion and the cul­tur­al-stud­ies read­er Goth. He is the author of the chil­dren’s books Phan­tom Truck­er and Haunt­ed Hous­es. He lives in San Fran­cis­co with his hus­band, film­mak­er Jef­frey Friedman.

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