Acts of God
When I first read them I loved Ellen Gilchrist’s stories in Victory Over Japan—especially the stories about Rhoda and Nora Jane—and the stories set in and around New Orleans, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams.
As even the New York Times reviewer said in 1984, “If we’re lucky, there will be yet another, with yet more overlapping tales, of Rhoda at 50 and Nora Jane in a new wig; of new and old versions of Lady Margaret Sarpie and Devoie and of King Mallison and Crystal.” And yet, now that I’ve gotten older myself and read about Rhoda at 67, she’s not half as much fun as I thought she would be. Instead of the antics of Crystal and Traceleen, in Gilchrist’s new collection of stories we get Louise Hand, the niece of a character in one of Gilchrist’s novels, stuck at an airport with her rich friends.
Most of the characters in Gilchrist’s new story collection, Acts of God, are old, and many of them are dying, although on their own terms. There are small delights, like the 80-year-old-couple telling their daughter they do not want a hired woman watching what they do all day because “we do not deserve this unkindness” and “who would have such a job, watching old people to keep them from driving their car?” But, as with old age, the delights are outnumbered by the tedium.
There are a few stories about New Orleans, from the point of view of characters who were there during Katrina and afterwards, and there’s a little of Gilchrist’s characteristic abrupt monologue, but it sounds more preachy than quirky now:
“most of my conversations are with people who work for me one way or the other. I have two houses, and a lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I spend half my time talking to housekeepers, plumbers, roofers, painters, drapery hangers, window-blind installers, lawyers, or certified public accountants. I like them. I like people who work better than I like people like myself, which is why I do volunteer work. It’s better than not working at all, which is the most boring thing in the world and why old people become morose.”
None of the old people in these stories are morose. In addition to the couple who object to having a watcher, there’s Cecilia and Jimmy, who are both aware that Jimmy would rather kill himself than succumb the way his fatal illness would dictate. Cecilia says to him
“if you get it into your head to go to the deadening and kill yourself with a gun or hang yourself like Mr. Allen did on Hopedale, then I will kill myself the next day, too, without bothering to bury you or burn you up in the cremator’s oven or do a thing to help your children or grandchildren cope with losing you. That’s a promise, Jimmy, so you can believe it. So be sure and get all those papers right for them.”
Jimmy’s response is to think that “he had to think of a way to do it that really seemed like an accident, or maybe murder. It was going to be hard as hell to do because she was on the scent.”
Then there’s Philipa, who in a story titled “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath,” jumps off of a cruise ship rather than wait to die of her illness. Her daughter Caroline later asks her psychiatrist “how will I ever die in peace when my own mother couldn’t do it?” and the doctor “sighed, wanted so much to leave the room. No one dies in peace, he wanted to say, unless they are on morphine, which is not that much better than jumping off a boat.”
Although I tend to agree with the notion that it’s better to die on one’s own terms, I’m no longer quite so charmed by Gilchrist’s trademark wacky off-handedness about, for instance, whether when people die they could be “walking around heaven either thinking about things or hungry or not hungry or busy watching us to see what we are doing.”
Crystal’s off-hand remarks, the fierceness of Rhoda, and the daring of Nora Jane might have come to more than this.