Home­town fo­cus for a crash course

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son

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’

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