Hometown focus for a crash course
In the Unlikely Event By Judy Blume Picador, 402pp, $29.99 You could be excused for thinking the principal literary spokesman for the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, was Philip Roth. After all, his mother, Bess Finkel, grew up in Elizabeth and later moved back there to retire with her husband after business deserted Newark, New Jersey, en masse. The two cities were so close, Roth recalled, that during the war when petrol was rationed the family walked from Newark to Elizabeth about once a month, an adventure that involved crossing a bridge over the railroad tracks.
Elizabeth, New Jersey, was not only made of Portnoy’s complaining, as it also begat Library of Congress “Living Legend” Judy Blume. Again, you could be excused for thinking Blume writes books solely for young adults, especially “young girls blossoming into nubility”, as the poet has it.
But this is not correct, or not quite correct. Of the 28 titles listed as “Judy Blume’s Books” in the front pages of In the Unlikely Event, 25 are categorised as “for young adults”, “for middlegrade readers”, “for younger readers, the ‘fudge’ books”, “the pain & the great one series”, and “storybooks”.
But, at the head of the list are three books “for adult readers”, to which we can add the novel under review. It may well be, though, that it is the books for younger readers that account for Blume’s stratospheric sales figures: 82 million books across 45 years.
If “in the unlikely event” summons up the flight attendant’s words at the start of a flight, then you are spot-on. The author notes: “Although this book is a work of fiction, and the characters and events are products of my imagination, the three airplane crashes are real.” Not one, not two, but three commercial aircraft crashed into Elizabeth, “long fearful because of its proximity to Newark airport”, in one eightweek period in 1951-52. One can imagine what Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell might have said had she lived into the age of air travel: “To have had one plane crash in Elizabeth, Mr Worthing, might be thought of as an accident, but …”
The novel, like the event in 1987 that frames it, is as its central character Miri observes, “the commemoration of the worst year of your life”. As her four pages of end notes attest, Blume did her research, from January 2009 to November last year, to anchor her work of fiction in the historical, the real, the local “where all truth lies”, as eminent New Jersey poet and pediatrician WC Williams put it.
The novel records significant events between 1952 and 1987 in US history: the Korean war, the “threat” of communism, senator Joseph McCarthy, rumours of aliens, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby (also of interest to Roth), atomic bomb testing at the recently developed site near Las Vegas. (‘‘Thousands of holiday tourists on the Las Vegas strip celebrated dawn with the sight of an atomic flash at the Yucca Flash test site 78 miles away. The mushroom cloud was clearly seen. ‘There were no casualties,’ the Army announced.’’)
But no less important are the minutiae of daily life in Elizabeth: young women, tampons, condoms; the “finished basement” as a signifier of success and good housekeeping; pregnancy and a late period; the use of a diaphragm.
In the Unlikely Event also records the significant books and writers, for younger readers, of the 35 years it documents. The Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut are among those mentioned, though Blume modestly refrains from noting she was a bestseller in those decades.
Salinger certainly had his problems with the moral guardians of the US, as has Blume. “That night they made love using both her new diaphragm and a rubber, because she wasn’t sure she was using the diaphragm correctly. She found it complicated and messy. First you had to put the jelly in and rub it around, making sure you got enough over the rim, then you had to squeeze it together and insert it into your vagina, getting it up far enough.”
In a manner reminiscent of Jane Smiley’s ongoing The Last Hundred Years trilogy, Blume tells her tale in bite-sized segments subdivided by dates and characters. This makes for a novel that’s very easy to read — unlike, say, the work of Man Booker International Prize winner Laszlo Krasznahorkai. There may be more than a sliver of truth in Blume’s recent admission to The New York Times: “I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller.” Which is perhaps a meaningful distinction. One can imagine In the Unlikely Event being snapped up by book clubs. Krasznahorkai not.
Judy Blume: ‘I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller’