The world can be divided into people who have impossible mothers and those who don’t. These two groups will never understand each other. Those with loving mothers will never get it. A mother, after all, is supposed to be capable of the highest, strongest love; it beats brotherly love by a mile, God knows. If we’re perishing in a burning building, our mothers are supposed to drop whatever they’re doing and run in to pull us out.
But what if Mom set the fire? What if she looks over one balmy summer evening, as my mother once did to my little sister, and utters the decisive words, “You make me sick.”
The children of women like these are doomed to spend a lot of their lives figuring out their mothers — or trying to. But they’re an enigma. Alan Shapiro, a prize-winning poet with 10 volumes of verse and two memoirs behind him, tackles the problem in his first novel, “Broadway Baby.” He sketches a bereft little girl, Miriam, with an awful mother who’s taken her to see a Broadway musical. Miriam decides immediately that life is far better behind the footlights than out in the seats. After all, life in a musical comedy is clean and easy to explain. She grows up in the 1940s to the music of “Oklahoma!” and lives for many months taking on the persona of Julie, the tragic mulatto from “Show Boat” as her avatar, her protector, her Blessed Mother.
Miriam does this because her life is squalid, mean and characterized by a paltry amount of affection. She lives with her Jewish immigrant grandparents. Her father is a butcher; her mother, who has divorced him, runs a dress shop and can hardly stand to look at her daughter. (We never know why. As I said, bad mothers are an enigma.)
Fortunately (perhaps), Miriam grows up to be as beautiful as a princess — or the lead in a musical comedy. And when she meets a handsome boy named Curly, they make the perfect couple. Except, as Shapiro tells us, “Sex confused and scared her. Why? She couldn’t say, and if she could, who would she have said it to?”
As Miriam thinks about her romantic attachment to Curly, there are other problems. “Sex was the least of it; sex had nothing to do with devotion or beauty or being seen. Sex was the opposite of being looked at as they made an entrance.” In fact, sex can be the embodiment of daily life once you’re married, and who in his or her right mind really likes daily life? An intense dislike of the quotidian might be why we climb mountains or figure skate or run for Congress.
Poor Miriam! When God doled out brains, He short-changed her. And her mother never lectured her about beauty being skin-deep. (Or about anything else, for that matter.) Her marriage to Curly turns out to be a fiasco — think of the wedding reception in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” And if Miriam is ill-suited to be a wife, think how bad she’ll be as the mother of her own affection-starved children. Motherhood is based on giving, and this poor woman has nothing to give. As Gertrude Stein said, “There is no there there.”
What makes this woman so awful? Maybe it’s that there isn’t an authentic bone in her body; her level of maturity never gets past the ferocious innocence of “The Music Man.”
But this is an immigrant novel, as well. Her parents and grandparents are poverty-stricken European Jews who have lost their old ways and haven’t found any new ones. Miriam’s artistic son may not be able to solve these problems, but he can describe them meticulously — and arouse more than enough pity and terror in the receptive reader.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.
By Alan Shapiro
269pp. $13.95 Paperback.