Cupid has so sharpened his arrows against the abrasive rhetoric of chauvinists, male and female, that he often draws more blood than love. The writer who would find those wounds and identify the particulars of how they were influcted and by whom, could do so only by steping carefully where Cupid and even polemicists fear to tread.
In her new novel, "Sweetsir," Helen Yglesias skillfully dissects the ways that instinctual attraction and revulsion between a man and a woman, nourished by macho myth and feminine fantasy, can throw over society's controls and wreak personal tragedy. Antipathy and attraction inevitably emerge from passionate relationships, each, in the best of circumstances, keeping the other in check. When they don't, as in the marriage of Sally and Morgan Sweetsir, the traditional attitudes of masculinity and feminity run amok.
Sally and 'Sweets' live out scenes of domestic violence in a Catch-22 of their own sexual construction: To feel sexually powerful, Sweets must humiliate her; Sally compels him to master her even at the price of her own humilation. When they play games with ships, spurs and boots, Sally is suffused with intense joyous anger, overwhelmed by her desire for this "naked animal," his face alight with the arrogant pleasure of possession. She decends to the voluptuary, giving herself to primitive desire like the heroine of a romantic pulp novel.
For Sally, her husband is the illusion of a perfect love, just the right mix of masculinity and vulnerability, a man who must dominate her as she must lean on him. Sexual intensity camouflages danger signals. When a former boyfriend warns her about Sweets' violent ways, Sally dismisses the concern as envy. Her love can rescue Sweets from his past -- his debts, his previous marriages, his battered ex-wives are only history. Women who marry unrepentant alcoholics rarely think less.
Later, when the skirmishing for battle positions becomes a way of life, Sally learns that to win, she must lose. She dumps a platter of chicken cacciatore over his head; he is driven to tears, and she, terrified, watches his manhood in full retreat. She begs forgiveness; he hits her. She breathes a sigh of relief: "She hadn't harmed him beyond repair. He still retained the courage to be mean and to hit to hurt."
In their final fight, Sally takes a long carving knife from the kitchen drawer as a flame of dreadful inspiration flashes behind her eyes. "It was like making love, this fight. Hatred, live love, could become a charged entity building into a living presence between them." Sweets plays aggressor once more, hitting her repeatedly. In their struggle, he thrusts his body upon her knife, and in his dying ear her voice becomes that of a "drawling good-little-girl . . . saturated with meekness." She suffers the ultimate loss at the height of her submissive passion.
She's along, facing judgment. Feminists descend on her, urging her to see herself as a battered working-class wife suffering under the heel of patriarchal oppression, driven by male evil to defend her honor at the point of a knife. But the love she killed is worth more than a debating point to Sally.
She explains to the jury that the slaying of Sweets was no less homicide for being justifiable: "I, Sally Sweetsir, alleged murderer, am a woman much like you, loving a man like you, in a marriage much like yours. Ours went over the edge, but what happened to us could have happened to any of you in a family fight."
Her defense is cool, good sense in a courtroom where the law circumscribes life with strict definitions, but Yglesias is telling us even more. Sally Sweetsir is Everywoman, who female intuitions propel her beyond reason into a destructive relationship. Having lived through a loveless first marriage, she vowed to do anything to preserve her passion in the second. Sweets was the incarnation of everying masculine for her: "He was her lover, her best friend, better than a father, the brother and the son she never had . . ." She is carried away with her need to please him, he with his power to subsume her will in his. Each invests the other with too much magic.
Sweets and Sally breathe life into sexual sterotypes, warning against passion that rules without reason. For all Sweets' wife-battering, Sally comes to realize that she has been driven by a submission equal in its willfulness to his aggression.
Helen Yglesias has no neat explanations for the phenomenon of wife-battering, though she comprehends clearly the irrational side of being female. She comprehends less of the male penchant for vainglorious bluster: The novel's most obvious weakness is her reluctance or inability to penetrate Sweets' pathology.
Although Yglesias does not offer fresh insight into the male side of this experience, she nevertheless writes a moving story from a female point of view, posing many of the questions women ask in trying to understand their men. Sally, trying to figure out what had made Sweetsir tick, asks her lawyer, a woman, this question:
Don't you think that really what men love first isn't their women or their children or their work but themselves, their picture in their own minds they make up of who they think they are? Isn't that what's first with them?"