Monday, November 05, 2007

The House That Denial Built

House of Happy Endings by Leslie Garis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
339 Pages. $25.00

Realism, according to Leslie Garis, has never been her family's strong suit. In the early 20th Century, her grandfather, Howard Garis was something like a smaller-scale J.K. Rowling. A celebrated children's author, he created Uncle Wiggily, a kindly, sharp-witted old bunny whose exciting misadventures with his woodland nieces and nephews were the stuff of bedtime stories for millions of children.

With his wife, Lillian, he also wrote or co-wrote numerous young adult novels featuring such plucky heroes and heroines as Tom Swift, Judy Jordan, the Rough Riders and the immensely popular Bobbsey Twins.

For children and teens in the 1920s and for decades after, these books represented the kind of morning-in-America family values that exists in books and rarely elsewhere, least of all the lives of the people who wrote them.

Leslie Garis, who grew up in the same house as her grandparents, describes Howard as a creature very much of his own fantasy world, not a bad escape hatch considering the cold, selfish, sour old battle-ax that was Lillian. Their son Roger, Leslie's father, had it far worse: a writer with ambitions of his own, he spent his life trying to free himself from his father's fame and his mother's smothering psychological headlock.

The primary focus of this tender and often heartbreaking memoir, Roger is both a pathetic and deeply touching figure. Raised with little of the self-reliance Howard and Lillian championed in their many books, Roger enters adulthood and marriage not only dependent on the family money, but also mired in a deeply masochistic relationship with Lillian, who exists to feed his insecurity.

The book opens with Roger exhibiting some rare initiative -- an editor with the New York Times Magazine, he up and moves his young family into The Dell, a legendary house in Amherst, Massachusetts, which he can barely afford. With great gusto, he starts a regional magazine, The Pioneer, which turns The Dell into a hub of activity. After five issues, it folds. As financial reality sets in, Roger turns to his parents for help; they agree to sell their home and move in, quickly changing the general chemistry of The Dell.

Roger, lacking Howard's unstoppable creativity or energy, hears his father's typewriter every morning, easily knocking off sometimes five new Uncle Wiggily stories. Roger's deference to Howard bothers Leslie; "For the first time I was seeing him as an unarmored son, rather than my knightly father." Lillian is a more troublesome, as well as mysterious, figure; the woman who built her career on writing tales of girls seizing the day with can-do enthusiasm is a gloomy old cow at war with the entire family, and seems to have a pathological need to emasculate her son, whom she constantly reminds that he has none of his father's gifts. "Whatever successes he had were at the cost of fighting his mother's expectations for him," Garis writes.

Roger nonetheless bears down, writes television dramas that actually get produced, and plays for the theater that either go into production(and quickly close) or at least come near it. Professional frustration breeds drug dependence, which proves to be something of a family legacy, exacerbating tensions all around. While Roger devotes himself to being the next Eugene O'Neill, The Dell is constantly staging its own version of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, with Roger and other players paralyzed by pills, booze, mental illness, debt, crushed dreams and guilt, sometimes all at once.

Garis sees her father as only a daughter can, but she quickly wins our sympathy. You see the world through her eyes, hoping Roger will get his act together and that the book's title will stop remain so witheringly ironic. Life, however, is not a children's story; in this absorbing, honest, deeply affectionate portrait of a family in decline, Leslie Garis proves that reality is her strong suit after all.

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