Divorce looms large on the American landscape. It comes in, countrystyle, on our car radios. It beams in, California-style, in the form of "sitcoms." And, recently, fiction -- especially short fiction -- has become the realm of what might be called "divorce Eastern/urban-style." This is city divorce, spreading like blight. It is East Coast divorce, less bluesy and hopeless than its country cousin, less dizzy than the California variety. In this fiction, marriages are fraught with small details, they are messy with soured love, yet they crumble as gracefully as sand sculptures. They sift through the fingers and disappear. The danger is that, after a while, the stories upon stories of this genre are apt to sift away too, blurring together as pale and similar as particles of sand.
Into the risky territory, Joyce Reiser Kornblatt brings her first book, "Nothing To Do With Love," a collection of seven stories and a novella. She gives us divorce from just about every perspective here. There is the ex-wife, cast adrift with only a red Camaro left from her marriage. There is the ex-husband, burdened with too many leftovers from his past marriage -- his wife's French cookbooks, his children's toys. There are edgy couples on the path to divorce. And there are lost children, forgotten somewhere along that same path.
Kornblatt might easily have sunk into quicksand with this material, but, fortunately, she seems to know her way around it pretty well. For the most part, these stories are successful because Kornblatt is a fine and careful writer. Her language can be as precise as poetry, as intense as prayer. She gives us the world of a lonely child just getting up in the morning: "Richard lifts the shade. He sees the blistered sky, weepy and pale, and Mr. Bone's dog out in the morning rain. Mr. Bone, Mr. Bone . But his porch is empty, the chintz-covered glider cushions wet-dark, the lavender flowers turned purple as ink, or peacock blood, or a bruise."
She shows us a woman on the way to collapse: "My mother is ironing and watching I Love Lucy. Lucy and her friend Ethel, locked in a meat freezer, pound frantically on the thick wooden door. My mother begins to cry. The tears stream down her cheeks, drip on the iron, and sizzle. She cries nearly silently, except for a bumpiness in her breathing. A life preserver, deflating."
Scenes like these, constructed so perfectly and so painfully, are hard to sustain -- and harder still to live up to. In those passages where Kornblatt's visions are more commonplace, where her writing is merely good, the reader may feel like a child who's had his lollipop snatched away and replaced with something nutritious. A carrot stick, perhaps, or a whole-wheat biscuit.
The Novella which gives the book its title is an uneven piece with one big dose of whole wheat. It is the story of a divorced couple, Janet and Brian Sorokin, and their 15-year-old daughter, Robin, who has run away leaving a short note which begins, "This has nothing to do with love . . ." Janet Sorokin searches for clues. She walks through her daughter's neat and empty bedroom. She talks to Robin's best friend best friend, a girl as pretty and silent as a statue. And finally, because Janet Sorokin is a geneticist, she looks for answers along the limbs of the family tree -- limbs which include a grandfather who hides out in alcoholic fogs and a grandmother who vanished long ago in a mist of tears. "I am speaking of a family in which disappearance is a dominant trait," Janet says. Her voice is flat and meticulous, a scientist's voice, as compelling as gravity. When Janet Sorokin speaks, we listen. The problem is what to do when she stops speaking.
Partway through the novella, Kornblatt gives the narrative voice to Robin, the runaway duaghter. Hers is an adolescent voice, quavery and righteous, just the thing, probably, for a lonely 15-year-old, but disappointing nonetheless after her mother's strong and lulling monotone. In Robin's world, Kornblatt seems something of a runawaya herself, caught in unfamiliar territory, losing her footing just a bit. Beacon House, the haven for runaways where Robin finally nests, is presented unconvincingly; the characters there are as thin and familiar as graham crackers. Gabriel, the founder of Beacon House, is an angel indeed, gentle and blond and out of this world. Alice, another runaway, is supposed to be a foul-mouthed Southern belle, a princess gone bad, but she is given to using "y'all" in the singular -- something only sit-com Southerners ever do.
Finally, Kornblatt wends her way through all of this. We listen, gratefully, as Janet's voice takes up the story again and brings it to its ending on a sweet, clear note.
Endings are always a tricky business. In Kornblatt's stories, the failed marriages go on and on. The bad dreams keep coming back and the tears are hard to stop. But the stories themselves are brief and sharp, the endings consistently right. The shorter form is better suited to the intensity of Kornblatt's writing. Two of the shortest pieces in this collection -- "Richard" and "Ordinary Mysteries" -- are smally, strange gems. Perhaps coincidentally, these two stories are not directly about divorce.
But, divorce or not. East Coast or not, with this book Joyce Reiser Dornblatt has begun to build her reputation out of sturdier stuff than sand.