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Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica (2005) was a tricky novel about a tricky past, its main character a forcibly retired model, haunted by old ghosts, waiting out her painful latter days in a fog of Hep C and janitorial labor. In the rainy confines of San Rafael, California, memories of Paris, Italy, and New York return, again and again, as translucent and tangible as the windows she’s forced to clean for a living. Gaitskill has always had a gift for seeing nostalgia and need in three dimensions; her characters’ inner lives take on outer shapes and venture, in tremulous disguise, out into the world.
In early stories, abjection was most often the thing that climbed to the surface. Secretary, the Hollywood movie adapted from her 1988 short story (albeit, Gaitskill has dryly observed, by way of a value-added dose of Pretty Woman), projected in splashy color a woman’s ambiguous complicity in her own sexual humiliation. In “The Wrong Thing,” the vivid quartet of stories that ended Because They Wanted To (1997), Gaitskill saw through to the other side, writing about a woman “who would debase herself trivially, for sport, and yet who sought, in the sheltering darkness of her debasement, passion, depth, and, most ludicrous, even tenderness.”
Ludicrous tenderness. Gaitskill, two decades into her career, has had a kind of renaissance under this banner. Veronica, with its studied depiction of a halting, somehow enduring friendship between the book’s title character and its protagonist, was, at heart, the story of one person trying to see—through a haze of wants and regrets and human static—into the soul of another. And now, with Don’t Cry, Gaitskill’s first story collection in over a decade, the author raises the ante once more, offering the possibility of forgiveness to all, however unlikely or undeserving.
Don’t Cry shares its title with the masterful final story in the book, about a pair of women who go on a trip to Ethiopia: Katya, “ugly-beautiful,” and, at 49, in search of a child to adopt; Janice, a writer, there to help and fleeing her grief after her husband Thomas’s death. Guilt hovers, too, the result of an impulsive infidelity, committed after Thomas had become “bad-tempered and strange,” but before he’d become officially sick and enfeebled. On their first morning in the country, Janice is awakened by wedding music blaring from outside their hotel: “Even in my sleep, I could hear love in it; even in my sleep, I could hear loss.” A coup rattles the country, even as a corrupt bureaucracy stands between Katya and Sonny, the baby she hopes to adopt. Janice watches the child as Katya does daily battle out in the city. While she’s gone, Sonny learns how to walk, and as he does, Janice passes though “a sad and enchanted mirror: I walked Sonny like I had walked Thomas, his hands in mine, giving him a footstep pattern to follow, holding his eyes with encouragement. Everything depended on the slow movements of his blunt feet, of their exact position, trusting it, finding it again.” In doing so, she too finds grace: ” ‘Look,’ I said aloud. Look, my husband, my father, my lover, my child: Look at this little boy and bless him.”
This is an entirely new mode for Gaitskill, one of age and regret and titanium emotional intelligence. But she remains at home on her old turf, too. In “College Town, 1980,” Gaitskill revisits a familiar locale, returning to the messy, communal house she first introduced in Because They Wanted To‘s “Orchid,” where an angelic boy, Patrick, and his awkward older sister, Dolores, still live, now as then, among a steady stream of adoring women and indifferent roommates. Like so many of Gaitskill’s characters, Dolores is both tough and fragile, bold and timid: She’s fresh out of a breakup and a suicide attempt and hard at work rebuilding psychic armor she’s wise enough not to trust.
In the story, not much happens. Lily, Patrick’s girlfriend, is thinking about leaving him. Dolores is steadily getting her life back together and is just beginning to realize—and this is a distinction that has existed in Gaitskill’s work since the beginning—the fine line between sympathy for those, like herself, who can’t help themselves, and rage at those who can, but don’t. “Morally, in the Christian sense, strength isn’t necessarily a good thing. You’re supposed to turn the other cheek, be sacrificed, you know?” Doris says to Lily. “But I think that kind of meekness is weak. . . . I don’t mean you should despise people for being weak, if it’s a kind of weakness they can’t help. But when they’re weak on purpose, it’s another thing. When they don’t even try. When they let people hurt them and don’t fight back. It’s gross. It’s letting down the whole human race.”
In “Folk Song,” a woman announces her intention “to have intercourse with one thousand men in a row”; Gaitskill pictures her ring-walking before the bed, “not like a stripper, more like a pro wrestler, striking stylized sex poses, flexing the muscles of her belly and thighs, gesticulating with mock anger, making terrible penis-busting faces.” “An Old Virgin” imagines a chaste 43-year-old woman carrying “a tiny red flame in the pit of her body, protecting it with her fat and muscle,” her presence as mute and powerful as “an ancient sacred artifact, a primitive icon with its face rubbed off.” In “Mirror Ball,” a handsome, boyish musician collects lovers, then lets them go. Gaitskill conjures up the “prize bits” that the women can’t help but leave behind: “If he could’ve seen the female souls clustered in his room, they might’ve looked like sexy juvenile delinquents hanging around a street corner, smoking and muttering.”
These are the ghosts for whom Don’t Cry saves its sympathy. There may be no better writer than Gaitskill at reaching deep into what she calls, in “Folk Song,” the “trapdoors in personality and obsession,” and pulling what she finds there back out into the world. Past, present, future; heartbreak, desire, and loss—none of it is quite beyond her. Her prose glides lightly over unsoundable depths, like the seemingly innocuous and familiar New York edifice one Don’t Cry character passes, “a wall layered with many seasons of damp movie posters,” where “the suggestion of a circus seeped up under the face of an actress, until a torn half tiger leapt, roaring, through the hoop of her eye.”