Everyone in the California writing trade knows that murder and suicide are usually worth an "R" rating, and that a competent writer can enliven his plot with homosexuality, incest and adultery to accelerate to an "X." Jessamyn West combines all of these in "The Life I Really Lived." She gets a "PG."
After 16 volumes of fiction ("The Friendly Persuasion"), poetry and memoirs, she has written a confessional novel-within-a-novel, not for "discovering my identity," but to escape what Socrates decried as the tragedy of the unexamined life. It's not clear that she accomplished what she set out to do. What promises to be a dark, backwoods drama comes out as a tale told through a glass, lightly.
Orpha Chase, a writer named after the Greek poet Orpheus, was born in the rugged Kentucky-Indiana border country where people, like trees, grow wild. Orpha begins at a beginning at the turn of the century and moves through 40 years of reading writing and recalling.
The artifice of true life "diguised as fiction" is necessary to a fault because the events of Orpha's life as described by West are the stuff of that truth which is stranger than fiction: sensational, lurid, sentimental, self-righteous -- and unconvincing. West describes the trap she fell into in the voice of the movie director who buys Orpha's novel: "Because there's so much in this story that's strange, we've got to be more careful than usual to keep everything else a hundred-percent believable."
And strange Orpha's tale is. She first marries a homosexual who kills the father of his child lover and then himself, and then she weds a man so prudish that he can't bear to call a pussycat a pussy. She has a love affair with a movie star who runs off with her daughter. She marries a third time; the union is sanctified as the sun sets over Molokai. Her faithhealer brother is tried for manslaughter when a woman chooses his "cure" over a mastectomy and dies.
Can Jessamyn West get away with soap opera like this? Yes, often. She writes gracefully, occasionally poetically, in a voice both innocent and brave. Sex and sordid violence are described with discretion and charm, demonstrating anew that less, if the correct less, is nearly always more. Like her heroine, West cares more about the correct order of the words in a good sentence than for the how-to-do-it sex-manual language that so often passes for erotic writing.
Her sympathy is clearly for an earlier and less strident times. She cannot understand why some women feel compelled to demonstrate their liberation by appropriating the vocabulary of jocks, jerks and lumberjacks. "If you were born among the wild ones, the renters, the ranters, the sharecroppers, the men who went off to the factories," says Orpha Chase, "if you lived among the tobacco fields, the corn rows, the wood lots, the stands of sassafras and hackberry, those words prove just one thing: You haven't moved an inch or learned a thing. . . ."
At its best, this is a Christian "Everygreen," a panoramic view of growing up in America during a time of sweeping change. Orpha Chase's people were not 'Evergreen's" Jewish immigrant but frontier Protestants: "Midwestern . . . Roosevelt-hating God-fearing, churchgoing, Republican-voting: the real backbone of Southern California." Bronze markers personalize history, people debate the Scopes monkey trial, criticize Henry's red and green Fords, glory in Lindbergh's solo flight to Paris, despise creeping socialism, and suffer the Depression and the incessant waves of Okies and Dust Bowlers with laughter and tears, pride and prejudice.
But Jessamyn West's best is not enough. She speaks as naively as a child about sophisticated matters requiring an adult's insight. Except for the narrator, the characters are neither provocative nor profound; we have her word for what they do, but we don't feel their experience. Too many incidents are contrived, and the climactic scene, the trial of the faithhealer brother, turns on a trick. Saddest of all, her sensitivity is synthetic. Scenes are drawn for a soap-opera sensibility. She wants us to know that she understands the wicked, wicked ways of the world, but seems unable to bear the thought that anyone would see her as less than an unspoiled Miss Goodie-Goodie Two Shoes.
Orpha Chase confesses her creator's difficulty right there on the first page. "Barn-burning, dog-poisoning, incest, rape, suicide, murder: These events of my girlhood will be briefly told. I have my need to confess. You may not have a like need to suffer." She's right. But without offering us her own understanding of Orpha Chase's suffering, Jessamyn West leaves us with that unexamined life.