GEORGE VERREY SMITH, the narrator of this startling little book, is a mild English schoolteacher. Forty-two years old, he endures a bleak existence with a joyless wife named Joy, who irritates him immeasurably by failing to align his pens when she cleans his study. He opens his story with a preamble so ahem-ing and priggish, so clotted with fussy tics like tho' and 'cos and "such as it is," that he's almost too convincing. Do we really want to spend several hours with this man?
Well, yes, we do, largely because it soon emerges that he isn't so mild after all. He's an excellent gossip, sharpeyed and sharp-tongued and comical. Watching his cheery, industrious neighbors, the Johnsons, as they set off with a picnic basket, he finds it annoying that, without a doubt, "wherever they were going, along with thousands of others who were going to the same place, Mr. Johnson would find somewhere to park." Another neighbor, Mrs. Bakewell, infuriates him by being taller than her husband. He clearly recalls that when the Bakewells married, they were both the same height. "Over fifteen or so years, she had pecked away at him with her tight mouth and laundered vocabulary."
Even on the subject of himself, he is merciless. He was a virgin when he married, he tells us, but "I didn't know I was. In fact I thought I wasn't. This might give you some idea of how much of a virgin I was." He admits that he dislikes his wife because he's treated her badly, "and that's enough to make you hate anybody". But his wife herself has not been all that blameless, he says. ("Other men complain that their wives don't understand them. I complain because mine does. She has always insisted on understanding me. She has destroyed me with her understanding.")
In addition to his poisonous wit, George Verrey Smith has another interesting quality. He likes to dress in women's clothes, which he refers to as his "sundays." In the privacy of his study, he dons a blond wig, an arsenal of cosmetics, and one or another of the dresses his wife has handed down to him -- "her pink chiffon, her blue taffeta [or] her indispensable little black, that turned out to be not so indispensable after all."
It takes a light hand to keep this last proclivity from seeming purely grotesque, but Bernice Rubens has brought it off. As much as possible, she underplays the bizarreness of the situation. She presents us, simply, with an unhappy man who has one harmless means of making himself happy. In fact, it's an arrangement almost without conflict -- everybody going about his or her placid, if somewhat muted, course -- until one of Verrey Smith's fellow teachers is murdered. Having coincidentally dropped out of sight in his "sundays" just at the time of the murder, Verrey Smith is a prime suspect and feels that he must stay concealed. Unfortunately, his only means of concealment is to remain in his feminine clothes forever -- trapped in them, in the persona of the fictitious "Emily Price," a genteel widow seeking employment as a lady's companion.
There's a curious break in tone between the first half of the book and the second. The first half is near slapstick. (Watch the timid Verrey Smith charge into a house to rescue a screaming neighbor, only to ask instead for the use of the bathroom, where he takes a leisurely bath with a rubber duck.) But the second half turns dark. Verrey Smith's one-liners fade out as he contemplates the root of his troubles: a miserable childhood with a drunken and abusive father.
Of course, real life is sometimes just this uneven ("But that's the way it happened!" creative-writing students are always protesting), and it's true that humor can abruptly change to tragedy. In this case, however, it's not a change we're fully prepared for. There's a perceptible jarring sensation as the reader shifts gears.
Nevertheless, this is an absorbing book. It's tightly constructed, with a vivid and entertaining plot. The funny half is very funny indeed, and the serious half shows that Bernice Rubens is capable of powerful writing. At moments -- when Verrey Smith contemplates what it would be like to have to stay female forever, or when he reflects upon the evening of his father's death -- Sunday Best goes beyond mere murder-comedy to become something much more affecting: an intimate view of man who, though damaged by life and bewildered, manages to keep on gamely snickering at himself.