Muscle Cars and Mercurial Women:
Moira Crone. The Ice Garden. Durham, NC: Carolina Wren Press, 2014.
James Lee Burke. Wayfaring Stranger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Muscle cars. Mercurial women—both brilliant and beautiful. This is stuff of which American dreams are made. It is also subject and study of both Moira Crone’s and James Lee Burke’s most recent texts, The Ice Garden and Wayfaring Stranger.
Each text is a masterpiece in its author’s oeuvre and chosen genre. While Crone focuses on one family in the small-town South in the 1960s and delves deeply into the souls and psyches of her female characters in a Bronte-esque fashion--stripping away all pretense and vanity with small, fine, and incisive strokes and delivering a superb psychological drama, Burke sketches history and philosophy on a larger canvas, tracing his protagonist’s growth from Texas teenager, to World War II Army second lieutenant, to oil baron, in the manner of Dos Passos rather than Dickens. While time seems stuck or even retrograde in Crone’s novel, it is about to shift, and it is the South’s resistance to that change that the writer so adroitly shows. In Wayfaring Stranger, Burke labels the time period as a “transitional era” (26). He demarcates the change concretely: “we were the last Americans who would remember a nation that was more agrarian than industrial, with more dirt roads than paved highways” (26). Then he delineates the philosophical transformation. “We would also be the last generation to believe in the moral solvency of the Republic” (26). Burke’s text does indeed depict an America where “[t]he cultural anchors of the continent were Hollywood and Ebbets Field” (26)—the former Major League Baseball field in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. However, like Crone’s novel, Wayfaring Stranger really focuses on the South—the oil-bearing regions of Texas and Louisiana (rather than Crone’s North Carolina). However, more than Crone’s novel, Burke’s also focuses on the incipient American obsession with celebrity—even celebrity gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and Bugsy Siegel, who have cameos in the text.
Myth, specifically the beauty myth of European and American lore that coalesced into Hollywood legend, is a strong structural element in both works. In The Ice Garden, Crone explores the territory and the time when and where a beautiful woman had “the power to sway others but not to be one’s self” (92). Diana actually asks her daughter, “’What else is there? But pretty?’” This contradictory, restrictive, and ultimately maddening condition creates a surreal landscape of being. The ice garden is an appropriate metaphor; both reality and other-world, it is the realm of the snow witch.
The young protagonist sees her passionate and talented mother become a dangerous and embittered empress, “caged” by her husband (69). When Claire rescues her sixteen-month-old sister from a tub of hot, running water, she thinks she sees “something new” in her mother’s eyes, “a glance like frost” (114). Claire finds that gaze terrifying. Just as horrifying is her mother’s next manifestation. Once Diana is institutionalized, Claire imagines Sleeping Beauty, “We’d kiss my mother, wake her, and she’d come alive, she’d come home” (69).
Her mother’s mental disorder, her father’s refusal to see or acknowledge it, and the controversial treatment regime her mother finally receives because of her doctor’s insistence cause Claire herself to splinter but not break. In order to survive, Claire forces herself to be an ice princess. The ten-year-old describes her torn loyalties and fractured self variously as the “cut-apart girl in me” (51) or the “cut-away girl” (71, 85, 132).
In the end, however, Claire determines that she will survive and thrive. She establishes her recovery in the terms of the story’s dominant myth: she notes the difference between literally freezing and “being ice” (217). When she realizes she is really freezing, she goes into the house, signifying the end to her period of numbness.
There are also traces of Hansel and Gretel in the story. Both parents fail their children. Instead they rely on the competence and care of their black maid, Sidney, whose strength and courage in the face of their parental abnegation and their accusations and insults recalls Faulkner’s Dilsey.
Even with the care of Sidney and her cousin Candace, and the brief intervention of Aunt C. (her father’s older sister from Washington, D. C.), the children’s existence is harrowing and horrible. Claire, whose love and loyalty both run deep, cares deeply about (and for) her sister. Disliking the baby’s given name, Odile, she renames her sister Sweetie. There is no sibling rivalry. Aware her parents wanted a boy, Claire dismisses such foolishness, “what a stupid thing to want, a boy when you could have a baby you could dress in Swiss dot” (12).
Before Sweetie is two years old, Claire rescues her sister from a second danger, taking her in the dead of a winter’s night from the house into the enchanting, but dangerous ice garden in the backyard. The story concludes five years after the ice storm’s tragedy. By repeatedly and devotedly choosing her sister over her parents, Claire saved them both. At the story’s end, now fifteen, she is planning for summer art school in Winston-Salem and early college enrollment, her “escape” (220).
A mythos of the beautiful woman and her knight in shining armor is also prevalent in Wayfaring Stranger. In the earliest chapters, the narrator meets Bonnie Parker and develops his first crush. His grandfather also finds her attractive, and that is how one of their strongest bonds, the appreciation of beautiful women, grows.
The narrator, Weldon Holland, grows up committed to loving and saving beautiful women. The text, like Crone’s, displays the threats that women face in a patriarchal, capitalistic society and shows how they can become victims of their own beauty and intelligence—how others can and will exploit those traits. As a child he fought to keep his mother from receiving electroshock treatments, and he later fights the same fight (at the same hospital) for his Spanish-Jewish-war-refugee wife. He also defends the honor of his best friend’s wife and attempts to save their marriage. His best friends, Hershel Pine and Roy Wiseheart, loom similarly larger than life and find themselves committed to a chivalric code that seems outdated and naïve at this start of the industrial era.
As a young man, the narrator’s personal introspections are somewhat superficial and slightly self-serving, but Holland’s cultural assessments are penetrating. He admits that his generation may have “created a myth” and become its “acolytes” (26). He is the quintessential hero, Roland. As he goes to war, he sees no middle ground, only a clear binary between right and wrong: serving as a knight in shining armor or “cloistering oneself in inertia and ennui as the world is set alight” (26). Later, Holland will question his chosen mythical edifice (337), but his friend Roy Wiseheart reaffirms Holland’s original identification, telling his friend that he is a person “out of the past”. . .Roland himself, who “hear[s] the horns blowing along the road to Roncevaux” (149).
Both texts share masterful description. Their treatments of the cast of cars are distinctive. Burke relishes and draws out his descriptions of the text’s cars, such as Bonnie and Clyde’s black Ford, which was “shaped like a shoe box” (2), as well as the couple’s 1932 four-door Chevy Confederate with “wire-spoked whitewall tires and a maroon paint job and a black top and black fenders and red leather upholstery” (15). Similar care is given to painting a description of Rosita Holland’s 1946 “customized” cherry-red Ford convertible (236). In Wayfaring Stranger, cars represent their owners’ personalities.
There are far fewer cars in The Ice Garden; they represent class and freedom. Claire’s father drives a dark Mercury (2). Her Aunt C. has a blue Rambler (8). Daniel La Fever, Sidney’s boyfriend, has a “spattered, ancient car” that Claire first finds “mean-looking” (20). Claire notes that it has “two colors, the top part orange and the bottom brown, with a silver strip between” (20). It also has rust holes in the floorboards (20). Claire calls it a “jalopy,” but during an afternoon outing, she realizes she wants to “stay” in his car and “keep driving” (26). Her mother, who drives her husband’s car “way too fast,” (26) ironically calls Daniel’s a “death trap” (29).
Crone’s text reads like a long poem. Its word-smithing would seem too advanced for the young narrator were the child not an artist. Although she is a painter, the narrator is also verbally gifted. Her perceptions are unique and elegiac. Once she labels the sky “bruise-blue” (1). She describes “[a] certain tick-tick-ticking, loud as an orchestra of clocks,” that drowned her [mother’s] words out….” She explains her emotions spatially, “I was as far from my heart as I had ever been, out past the coast, on another shore” (72).
Burke’s eloquent narrator majored in English at Texas A & M and had planned to go to Columbia to graduate school before he was dissuaded by his experiences in the war. The narrator’s wife affirms his writerly ability, encouraging him to continue his literary studies (77). His description of his aging grandfather demonstrates his empathy and his ability to sketch individuals in the semantics of their own existence. The former lawman and rancher now had “eyes like blue milk” and “calves swollen into eggplants” (76). The author’s description of Linda Gail Pine in Hollywood similarly successfully conflates the setting, the character’s background, and character’s mood—in this moment guilt at her infidelity, “She could feel the wind in her hair, her nipples hardening, the pores of her skin opening in the warm air. Across the boulevard, the oil wells were clanking up and down, the rhythm not unlike the sounds created by copulation upon a noisy mattress spring” (270).
It is, however, his apposition of human action and natural environment that best showcases Burke’s signature style. The scene in which Wiseheart, the wayfaring stranger of the text’s title, sacrifices himself exemplifies that skill. First Burke delineates the crash. Then he paints the landscape. “All the light had gone out of the sky. The meadows were dark and sodden, the water ponds in the grass flanged with ice. The sparks flying from under the plane’s fuselage resembled the bright orange drip from a welder’s touch. The explosion was not loud, more like a whoosh of heat. . .like a Christmas log bursting alight” (429).
Wiseheart’s martyrdom demonstrates the key difference in the two texts. It is the missing element in my opening equation: strong men. They are absent in Crone’s novel, but idealized versions of them run rampant in Burke’s. The narrator’s gender determines the text’s perspective. While Claire baldly states that her mother’s beauty is her father’s religion and confesses that “half the time, it was mine too” (92), Holland metaphorically paints the same picture. He describes his wife as his both his Ruth and his Esther, a woman “descended from the House of Jesse” (193-94) and claims that making love to her is a “sacrament,” not a sexual act (103). Both texts, thus, probe the mythos and mystique—the truth and consequences--of female beauty vis-á-vis the objectifying lens of masculinity: Wayfaring Stranger props it up with the tatters of Judeo-Christianity and nationalism, while The Ice Garden dismantles the car wreck that that cultural construction caused and shows that women were not just posed erotically on the hood of those expensive cars and objectified in men’s minds and myth: they were such sagas’ fuel and exhaust(ed).
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
M. L. Byrd is an associate professor English at Virginia State and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. One of her favorite responsibilities is book reviewing!