Books
3:22 pm
Mon February 16, 2009

The Agnostics: A Novel, by Wendy Rawlings

Rawlings has a pleasing style, a good eye for the Tom Wolfe "status life" detail, draws convincing and realistic characters and has certainly captured the tone of this slice of the 70's and 80's. This novel reads smoothly, and I enjoyed it, even if I could not finally figure out whose side Rawlings was on. Maybe that is after all its greatest strength.

Wendy Rawlings, the author of a volume of short fiction, "Come Back Irish," teaches fiction writing in the MFA program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Rawlings has set "The Agnostics," her first novel, on the north shore of Long Island, in New York State.

This is a family novel, not exactly epic in scope, but multi-generational. The novel opens in 1960, when the protagonist couple, Stephen and Bev, are still in high school. Bev, a beautiful young woman who resembles Natalie Wood, is at first dating the "inappropriate" boy, Richie Salerno, who will "die young, a bad death, gasping in the street." Her future husband, Stephen, is something of what will later be called a nerd. He will graduate "summa cum laude" from college in 1966 and become an engineer, specializing in the design of contact lenses. When his old-family, ultra-Waspy, parents give the graduation reception the fare includes ham and pigs in a blanket, although they know Bev and her family are Jewish. This is not a good sign.

Nevertheless, there are a conventional marriage and a house and jobs and two daughters. The only thing one might say is unconventional about the Wirths is that they practice no religion, no faith. They are agnostics, doubters, and raise their daughters, Louise and Deborah, to be the same. Does this matter? Does the lack of a church, a "church family," a grounding in a faith system make any difference in how their lives go? Does it matter if we believe that, at death, we become "mulch"? It is not clear. But whether it does or not, life gets more complicated for the Wirths. Bev falls in love with a neighborhood female friend, changes her mind, does it again, leaves, divorces Stephen who is now understandably thoroughly confused and demoralized, and makes a new life with her lover, Joan. They wear mostly purple shirts, often "Provincetown" sweatshirts, and wear their hair clipped short. Joan, also divorced, sensibly fears her enraged ex-husband and refers to him derisively as the "penis with arms. "

Joan and Bev sometimes vacation on Fire Island. One arrival there is described thusly: "A large crowd met the ferry on the other side, men kissing men, people of indeterminate gender kissing people of indeterminate gender. A person with breasts and a small, tended goatee. Men with the articulated gestures and manicured fingernails of women."

I quote this, in a sense, to establish that this novel is actually fairly well-balanced, not overly ideological. Yes, the women have a right to live and love as they wish. But no, gay life is not an earthly paradise, and some readers might find her description of that crowd somewhat grotesque.

And of course actions have consequences. Stephen never does rally from the shock, remains emotionally wobbly and drinks too much, and the daughters are forever affected by mom's sexual "crossing over." One becomes anorexic; both have trouble with relationships, and the novel comes to some resolution in the 1990's with Deborah marrying and having a daughter, Chloe, and having Chloe baptized in a Roman Catholic church, while Louise, who is still straight, attends a gay rights parade, the message of which she interprets as "come be alive."

Rawlings has a pleasing style, a good eye for the Tom Wolfe "status life" detail, draws convincing and realistic characters and has certainly captured the tone of this slice of the 70's and 80's. Once Bev started attending her women's "consciousness-raising" group to discuss what was wrong with their husbands and marriages, I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen next.

This novel reads smoothly, and I enjoyed it, even if I could not finally figure out whose side Rawlings was on. Maybe that is after all its greatest strength.

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