Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016: Reading The Great Dethriffe 40 Years Later

    Dad was a journalist first and foremost, even when writing his three books of fiction. P.S Wilkinson, The Great Dethriffe and Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes were all thinly veiled accounts of his life, his relationships, his thoughts and feelings about the times in which he lived. Friends, family members and neighbors would pick up these books and read them the way I imagine celebrities thumb through People Magazine, half in hope and half in dread of finding themselves within the pages.

   My sister and I appear in The Great Dethriffe as Syd and Ashbel. In the book George Dethriffe and Alice live in Winander, CT ( a name Dad probably dug out of a book of William Wordsworth poetry to double for the gated village of Tuxedo Park, NY) . To take a break from an argument with Alice (Mom) , George (Dad) visits his children's bedroom in to look in on them and what follows is straight out of family lore :

   Ashbel lay curled up tightly, his mouth open, one delicate hand beneath his cheek. Syd, in her bed, lay arms and legs outstretched like a free-fall parachutist.
   What do they dream about I wonder? Once, when Ashbel was a little over two, I heard him speak just one word in his sleep. He said, "Truck!" and, oh God, I hoped he was dreaming of the most glorious truck there ever was. Ten huge wheels with chromium rims on either side, a high crimson cab with air horns sprouting like rococo angels' trumpets from its peak, a trailer of silver with bright lights for its trim, lights along that trailer like a midnight passing train.
   "Truck!" said my son and the wind rushed out of his throat like tumbleweed across a darkened interstate.
   I have never heard Sydney speak in her dreams. She, like her mother, holds it in.

I've been told "truck" is the first word I ever said. That description of my sister --holding it in --may be the only true fiction here. I don't believe my sister has any issues with communicating her feelings.

  Published in 1972, The Great Dethriffe can be read as a fictionalized account of the events that led to my mother and father's marriage and divorce, a subject neither ever wanted to discuss much with me. George Dethriffe and his wife Alice fell madly in love --"Marriage at first sight"--but five years later, the passion is gone. They are both cell mates in a marriage. Alfred Moulton, his best friend, is a writer who, early in the book, tries to convince Dethriffe he shouldn't marry Alice.

  "Does she love you, really?"
  "Yes," he said. "Yes."
  "More than she loves herself? Don't forget, Alice Townsend looks out for herself. And you have every right to be just as selfish as she is."
  "Well, I'm not sure how true that is," George said. "But, like I keep trying to tell you, you just don't know Alice!"
  "I'm just worried you're going to marry her for all the wrong reasons. I'm worried that you're getting married because you think it's time to get married." I turned back from the bar and sat down in my leather chair again. "You feel you're old enough, and you haven't got anything better to do, and so you're going to marry Alice Townsend. All I'm trying to suggest is that you still have time to get out of it if you want to."
  "But I don't want to," George insisted.
  "Alright., here's another idea. Why don't you, instead of getting married next month, why don't you take Alice with you and go off somewhere and live together. Hell, go someplace where no one knows you're not married. Try it out before you make it legal. I just have the feeling that you're getting married out of some misguided sense of responsibility."

Author photo and description which always bothered my sister and me. The "child" is our half-sister Amanda.

  And it was somewhere here, about 107 pages into The Great Dethriffe, that I realized Alfred Moulton and George Dethriffe were the same person. Quite the revelation for me! Alfred speaks in the voice of my father after his divorce, trying to look out for his younger version. I'm sure, in real life, both his friends and his brother, Saint, tried to talk Dad out of getting married five year after graduating from college. Here, the case for and against the marriage is made over the course of pages and pages of text, from the Kennedy administration through the start of Nixon's first term.
  My parents's marriage lasted fewer than four years. One day Dad left the three of us in the house in Tuxedo Park and moved into a small New York City apartment.

    It took me a moment to start the cold engine, and then I backed the car up and turned it around. Just before I left, I looked back in the rear-view mirror at the kitchen. Alice  had come to the door and was watching me. And I'm not entirely sure this is true because it seems so patently absurd, but I think...I think, that as I left, I saw her wave.

 Dad apparently led the life of a bachelor before his Mexican divorce went through, while my mom moved with us to Aiken, South Carolina.
  Dad died in 2009. I'll never be able to talk to him again and ask the thousands of questions that have come up as I've written this blog. But I can open his books and spend hours in his presence, making these very personal connections with him.

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