Wednesday, November 10, 2010

City v. Suburbs

Monday I drew some thoughts on the death of publishing from David Karp's novel of suburban New York life in the 1950s, Leave Me Alone (1957). Tonight, I want to share a couple more passages that get closer to the city vs. suburbs conflict that is at the heart of the novel.

At the start of the book, the novel's protagonist lives with his family in a small apartment on 52nd Street in a building which,
in more scientific societies, would have been bulldozed; it was an affront to the moral, hygienic, and artistic sensibilities of thinking men.
And his authors--many of them needy and/or drunk--have a habit of dropping by. Thus, this note, left for him by his wife:
Kids at mother's for TV. Went to dentist for six pm appt. Gibsons in the frig. Pls don't nibble. L. B. phoned. Wants to see you. Pls do not ask him over tonite. If you must, we're low on liquor. If you must, get gin. Cheap gin. Only if you must. Mucho amor. E.
I love that note; it bounces along in a progression from hope to resignation, appeal to lesser appeal, in a way that makes it quietly funny at the same time as it's wholly believable as a marital communique. Needless to say, L. B. comes over.

Then they move to the suburbs, where we get this reminder that the horrors of the lawn are long-standing, and us city-dwellers should be grateful that we're spared them:
There always seemed to be something that had to be done for the grass. When it was not browning out because of lack of rain, it developed bald spots, which made them worry about grubs; and the appearance of some moss on the lawn upset Eleanor, since it indicated acidity in the lawn, and they had to add lime. When they were not adding lime they were adding fertilizer and they were constantly watering Arthur picked himself up, sometimes after having gone to bed, to go outdoors, slosh through standing pools of water and turn off sprinklers which had been forgotten. The grass, whether it was browning or thinning or allowing alien weeds to creep in, kept right on growing and so it had to be cut. But not merely cut, but edged so that where it met the sidewalk and the driveway and the walks to and around the house it would look neat and not straggly. Where grass grew into hedges and bushes and planting strips it had to be rooted out like an evil and wherever it had been rooted out or cut, it left a debris which had to be stuffed into sacks and soggy cartons and left for the once-weekly pick-up by the garbage trucks. Grass became, after a while, a sort of tyrant which demanded his time and energy and thought.
And it goes on, and on, from there.

Oh, yes, the city's the place for me: I'll take the sozzled drop-in over the empire of lawncare any day.


  1. I'm glad you're enjoying Karp! I can say with the voice of experience, though, that gardening/lawncare is much, much better when sozzled.

  2. I don't know, JRSM--I remember the boozy hedge-trimmer scene in The Corrections a bit too well to mix the two.

    And yes, I ended up enjoying Leave Me Alone quite a bit--thanks for the tip. The protagonist's frustration in the suburbs and conformity felt very familiar, but it was strange to see it portrayed at the height of the two: sort of like Bowling Alone transported to the days of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

  3. Anonymous9:44 AM

    I've been lurking and reading this blog for several weeks now, and I appreciate your discussion of the different books you're reading. I think I'm going to pick this one up.

  4. Skippy,
    The novel doesn't hold up perfectly--some aspects have aged better than others--but I thinkit's well worth seeking out for its picture of suburban life just as it began its rise to dominance in America.