Desperate Characters

A few years ago, I did a favor for a friend and, in thanks, he sent me a copy of Paula Fox’s 1970 novel Desperate Characters. Seeing him again in June prompted me to read the book. It’s an amazing small novel about a prosperous, cultured, and childless couple in Brooklyn. The husband is fighting with his law partner; the wife feeds a stray cat. They say things that are not as kind as they probably should be. But the stray cat scratches her, the scratch gets infected, she ignores it and goes off to a dinner party anyway. Even though that’s about it, it manages to be a sinister novel, full of rage and smart observations about gentrification, marriage, and aging.

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in novels about writers living in Brooklyn.

The pleasure of it comes from the precision of the writing. Let me give you a flavor, from some of the passages that struck me.

I liked this one: a wife’s reaction to her husband’s refusal to throw away some very worn underwear: “He sounded rather plaintive. She felt kinder toward him. There was something funny about people’s private little preferences and indulgences, something secretive and childlike and silly. She laughed at him and his soft old underwear.”

Or this description of a party-goer’s pretentious stoner son: “At the very hint of an idea from me, he smiles at me gently as though I were eternally damned.” 

Thanks, Drew!