The Barber Lady's Son

from New Partisan, May 9, 2005

What kind of people were they -- our parents, I mean; what sort of lives did they lead when not busily tending to the needs of oh-so important little you and me? The contrast between one reality and another generates dramatic tension, the stuff from which books are made, ranging from “as told to” celebrity ghost jobs to the happy discovery of an outstanding writer who just happens to have a parent worth reading about. The example that pops immediately to mind is Yael Dayan’s memoir of her father, the one-eyed Israeli general. A parent-child relationship may not be the only shortcut to biographical insight, but it sure doesn’t hurt: Samuel Johnson is obviously a surrogate father to Boswell; I think the two of them even comment on it at some point.

Familial biographies range from payback of the”Mommie, Dearest” variety, where the author does a Menendez brothers job on his or her progenitors, to sappy home movies in grainy 8mm. Somewhere in between comes the account written to “put the record straight.” One of the oddest I’ve read is Anthony West’s life of his father, H.G. Wells, which is really a point-by-point refutation of everything that his mother, Rebecca West,  said about him. (I find the son’s version convincing. Dame Rebecca ensured that her residual vindictiveness would be imprinted on the canon by American academics thrilled to death at being taken into the confidence of one of feminism’s founding mothers.)

Resolving a posthumous enigma is another off-the-shelf premise for parental portraits. Who was that girl in the frock and ringlets and why did Dad keep her picture stashed away all these years? Off we go on a quest in which the biographical narrative emerges as a function of the unraveling riddle, which is likely a secret, or even a surprise, only to the subject’s children.

There is, however, one book I know of that breaks with all of these conventions in making the leap from the biography shelf to Literature with a capital L. No quest, no revelations, no case to be made for the prosecution or the defense. A book in which a souped-up, custom-louvered version of the English language is needed to carry the high-voltage charge that comes from the fact that Edward Dahlberg was his mother’s son, which is the only thing, really, that Because I Was Flesh wants to tell us.
That book is currently out of print, though I suspect it may not be for much longer since novelist Jonathan Lethem has written it up in the trenchant lead essay of his new collection “The Disappointment Artist.” In the late 1960s, Lethem’s Aunt Billie wrote her fanily a series of letters detailing the abuse she and her fellow students were subjected to in the Kansas City creative writing class that provided the ogre-ish Dahlberg with more of a living than he ever made from literature.

Lethem predicts that Dahlberg will someday be remembered on the strength of  “the lasting beauty of one towering book.” That’s correct, I think. He opens grandly:
Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the    maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild, concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.
The pipe organ from which Dahlberg coaxes this high Baroque prose swells in the opening cadences introducing the reader to Lizzie, a woman whose life was spent trimming men’s hair and massaging their scalps in a business that could have been lucrative, though it never would have been considered respectable by polite KC society. Lizzie sidelined as a de facto madam and abortionist for her stable of lady barbers, who did not see themselves as whoring for their codger customers so much as offering them an upfront sample of what they would be delighted to deliver to anyone improvident enough to ask for their hand in marriage.  And if not, breach of promise suits were pretty common in that day and age.

Lizzie was just as luckless in her affections. Her penchant for worthless rats did not exhaust itself when the future author’s possible father decamped with their savings, the first of many chasers of chippies and four-flushers to whom she gave her heart. Fruit peddlers found she would much rather believe their solemn pledges of freshness than finger the squishy produce. Her girls knew that she knew that they were stealing from the cash register.  Lizzie was Jewish, no small deal for that time and place, and kept her “telltale nose” behind a barbering chair set far from the door.

She did not know what to do with her life or with her feelings. She toiled because she was afraid to starve and because she had nothing else to do, but her will was too sick to love the child of her lust. He was so skinny and yellow that his nose seemed to cover his face; and all the obduracy that was in her short, round neck had passed over to him. All that Lizzie could understand is that the child of her profligacy vomited and would grow up ugly.

When the son is eleven, he gets packed off to an orphanage in Cleveland at the insistence of Lizzie’s latest dirtbag paramour. The six years he languishes there battling the Irish Micks from Kinsman Road and the slums of Superior Avenue and eating green-pea hash on Thursdays are compressed into a single narrative stream, like Thoreau  in Walden,  without any wringing of the reader’s hanky to enhance its dramatic effect. When Dahlberg returns home, the character who until now has been written about in the third person as “Lizzie’s boy” or “the adhesive child” or just “the boy” has become a person, has become an “I.”
In the harrowing bits about the Jewish Orphan Asylum, the florid prose interspersed with Biblical tropes that Dahlberg slathers throughout the book is mostly kept to a trickle When it does leak out, it can stain a beautifully wrought paragraph like this:

They were a separate race of stunted children who were clad in famine. Swollen heads lay on top of ashy uniformed orphans. Some had oval or oblong skulls, others gigantic watery occiputs that resembled the Cynecephali described by Hesiod and Pliny. The palsied and the lame were cured in the pool of Bethesda, but who had enough human spittle to heal the orphans’ sore eyes and granulated lids? How little love, or hot sperm, had gone into the making of their gray-maimed bodies.

It would have meant a great deal to me if he could have done without the Cynecephali, but what can you expect from a writer who throws around words like “limbeck” and “lorn” to keep us on our toes. And how much of the erudition is for effect when he talks about a “kabbalistical staircase” and later a “kabbalistical black suit”? In what, if any, sense can they be said to be so? Still and all, I’ll go to bat for any writer who apostrophizes the city of Los Angeles as “the sewer of Sodom.”

By the way, the last of Lizzie’s great deceivers, Tobias Emeritch,  is  --  so go ahead, sue me, kill me, I’ll say it anyway  -- as good a Dickensian character as Dickens ever came up with. And all stylistic affectation is forgiven when you run into a passage that makes your hair stand on end, like this one about Lizzie sinking  into old age:

Despite her resolution to remain alive, every new day was a terror to her. By two o’clock in the afternoon she had gained part of her battle against the morning; then she would snatch the remnant of a petticoat from the floor of the clothes closet and wipe the scum of lotion from her cheeks, If she happened to step upon an old corset cover she would pick it up and clean her shoes with it. She could not part with anything; she hoarded buttons, a piece of chemise, a smutty chamois or powder puff, a hair switch, half a razorstrop. They represented her life, which was over.
Unevenness of accomplishment is the least of the sins that Dahlberg may be expunging in whichever afterlife he has been confined since 1977. Lethem got his Dahlberg horror stories from his aunt; I heard a couple of good ones in Mallorca, where Dahlberg he lived in the 1960s and left behind a blaze of stink in the memories of a not inconsiderable number of people living there. All accounts depict a ferocious hater of the human race who despised its attempts at writing literature,  a man seven times married who couldn’t stop ranting against the sexuality that enslaved him. Insofar as they were both brilliant misfits and incredible pains in the ass, Edward Dahlberg is a lot like Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, who was granted posthumous absolution in a book that is still the gold standard for modern biography. If Dahlberg ever gets the biography he deserves, it will also be on the strength of a single book.

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