"Idle and Disorderly Persons" begins by quoting an ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." In Mary Hazzard's thoughtful novel, the personal lives of middle-class, academic families reflect the social and political turmoil of America during the Vietnam war. At a time when we continue to examine the war and its effects, Hazzard considers the peace movement and its impact on the people who stayed at home.
In "Idle and Disorderly Persons," two marriages unravel against the background of the antiwar movement in suburban Boston. Phoebe and Daniel Wyatt have a civilized, affectionate marriage of mutual understanding and support. In contrast, Jenny and Joel Simon's relationship is emotional and disordered. She is gentle and hapless, he is pretentious and domineering, a womanizer who has left her for an attractive graduate student when the book begins. Daniel, drawn to comfort Jenny, soon finds himself having an affair. As Phoebe becomes more absorbed in antiwar activities, Daniel draws away from her and their marriage also falls apart.
The plot could happen anywhere, anytime, but Hazzard's characters reflect the moods, liberal politics and preoccupations of the 1960s and early '70s. Her portrait of the times is both ironic and sympathetic, pointing out the pompous and trendy as well as the serious and sadder aspects of the peace movement. Joel, for example, a man who "had recently given up deodorant and who looked as if he had been drawn by Edward Lear," generates frequent memos to his colleagues on protest activities that vividly recall the era: "The central focus of a 'why-in' is a group of persons jammed in front of the draft board to ask 'Why?' "
In general, however, Hazzard shows us earnest, thoughtful people of refined sensibilities, truly concerned and willing to be involved, but not really able to alter their lives to match the harshness and brutality of the war or the lives of people outside their class. Even Phoebe, who works hard and sincerely for the movement and is touched by the problems of others, finds that her personal tastes intrude upon her principles. Choosing to go to jail for blocking the boarding of a draftees' bus, she is upset when she must exchange her clothes for an ugly housedress from the prison's swap room. "She associated such dresses with colorlessness and drudgery. Not that the dresses themselves were colorless. Most . . . were covered with large, unidentifiable flowers . . . others . . . patterned in tartans which looked as if they belonged to clans that had been forced, like brand-new high schools, to design their uniforms after all the good colors had been used up." She is ashamed of herself for caring about this, but it nonetheless mars her prison experience. A fellow protestor antagonizes the nonpolitical inmates by paying her fine instead of serving out her term because she must get home to attend her daughter's music recital.
Such carefully observed details and delicate perceptions of the way people behave in unfamiliar circumstances develop the characters apart from their social and political roles. Phoebe is the most active in the peace movement, and her interest indicates her character: high-minded, competent, sensitive. Her growth through the novel parallels the growth of many women in the last 15 years towards more independence, both from personal choice and circumstances. Daniel remains more traditional. He is troubled and irritated by change and disruption--he admires Phoebe for going to jail but is annoyed at the inconvenience--yet he opts for a kind of independence, too, when he decides to let go of his marriage.
Jenny is in many ways the most interesting and affecting character. After Joel leaves she sits in her old, unruly house letting things fall apart. Her furniture breaks and sags, she thinks about suicide and writes poetry on torn scraps of paper. In old New Yorkers "she studied pictures of Steuben glass and Mexican liqueur and dresses designed by Lilly Pulitzer and imagined herself living the kind of life that included those things and had nothing in it like runaway dogs or husbands or ceilings that dripped on her head." She can barely cope, and yet when it comes to the crunch she knows how to survive--she keeps her family going, and despite her guilt about Phoebe she holds onto Daniel. Like all the characters she has self-insight, enough to realize she does not welcome liberation. She needed "to be somebody's wife and to bake bread . . . and make love and write poetry. . . . If she had to put on tailored clothes and go every day to an office full of typewriters, she would die."
Daniel chooses Jenny precisely because she is needy and he responds to her disorder and her spontaneity with what he calls "joy." He insists that he still loves Phoebe as well, and finds himself annoyed with her for being upset. "He had truly thought a few times lately that she might almost be glad to hear about the new, joyful side of his life. . . . Now, looking at Phoebe's wet face and red eyes, he was disappointed." With an ironic twist, he becomes the aggrieved, in pain because of his guilt and concern for these two women. Phoebe keeps thinking some action of hers could revive their marriage, but in fact the affair has a strength of its own that has nothing to do with her. Daniel even blames Phoebe for not somehow divining the side he hides from her, turning her goodness into a fault.
Through all of this Phoebe remains relatively self-controlled. When she cries or gets excited Daniel cuts her off, so that there is a kind of safety valve in the book, keeping strong emotions within civilized bounds. At the climax, when Daniel leaves, he seems self-centered, Jenny weak; and Phoebe, with whom one's natural sympathies lie, is so admirable it is difficult to get close to her. In that sense, "Idle and Disorderly Persons" is something like Phoebe: intelligent and perceptive, but somewhat distant at times. It is a careful, cool and thought-provoking novel, warmer on reflection for its quiet observations of the way people behave in troubled times.