I hate to say this because Lee Smith is one of my favorite writers, but her latest, "Guests on Earth," is pretty much a mess. The title comes from a letter written in 1940 by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter, Scotty, in an effort to explain her mother's mental illness. "The insane are mere guests on earth," he wrote, "eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read." The novel purports to be an explanation of the fire that took Zelda's life, but when it's over, we still don't know what happened.
The story is told by Evalina Touissant, the illegitimate daughter of a "kept woman" in New Orleans. When her lover turns against her, Evalina's mother becomes addicted to opium and then commits suicide. The girl is only 13, and the shock of her mother's death pushes her over the edge. She is committed to Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C., where Zelda Fitzgerald is also a patient.
It must be remembered that the narrator is a mental patient, frequently "cured" and then committed again, so we can never be certain about what she tells us. She befriends Zelda; with their mutual interest in art and music (Evalina is a gifted pianist), they hit it off. Unfortunately for the plot, our narrator makes many friends, and in an effort to tell all their stories, she loses any coherent storyline.
There is Robert, a seemingly effeminate boy who gave her a "kiss that ran all the way down my body" and then disappears, to be seen again only one more time. There is Ella Jean, the daughter of a cook who sang like an angel and knew all the old Appalachian folk songs. Then Evalina is sent to a private school and Ella Jean is out of her life, though she has a way of turning up at odd moments.
The new school does not work out, either, and several years later, Evalina is at a Baltimore music school when she meets a Swedish tenor named Joseph Nero, who hires her as his accompanist. His career takes them to Europe and her into his bed, which she expects will lead to marriage until she finds him in bed with two other women. He invites her to join them; she goes back to Highland instead.
A psychiatrist named Carroll and his wife are in charge, and they are firm believers in the latest treatments for the mentally ill -- insulin shock, electric shock, even frontal lobotomy. Evalina escapes before the worst can happen, but by then, I was beginning to lose faith in her story. It is not always credible, and I began to be concerned about a girl who climbs into bed with anyone who seems interested.
There are frequent digressions for accounts of her fellow patients. There is the spectacularly beautiful Dixie who, despite a handsome and loving husband and two delightful children, suffers frequent breakdowns, as well as the irrepressible, amoral Jinx. Evalina also tells us about her mysterious lover, Pam Otto, who never, as I recall, says a word, but takes her to his secret lair for more sex.
The story climaxes with a Mardi Gras, choreographed, costumed, and directed by the lovely, if aging, (she is 48) Zelda, which ends with the tragedy we know is coming. She has her dancers costumed in brightly colored outfits, performing a routine they do not understand. A few of them become hysterical but it all comes together for the finale -- a cancan -- and they exit in triumph. That night, the fire breaks out.
The novel ends back in New Orleans, where Evalina is giving piano lessons. She is living in a basement apartment in the Garden District, and is certain -- with no evidence -- that Pam will soon be joining her. She thinks she sees his shoes passing by on the sidewalk above, but when she rushes up, there is no sign of him. "My palm has been itching of late," she tells us at the very end, "so I believe he will return soon. Oh hurry, hurry, hurry up ... It's time it's almost carnival time when he will appear at my door his face like flower."
I kept thinking that the author was trying to send some hidden message, but if she was, I didn't get it.
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- All book reviews by Don McKinney