Charlotte, the engaging narrator of Elizabeth Evans’s graceful novel, As Good As Dead, is one of my new favorite heroines of contemporary fiction.
A novelist who teaches creative writing at a university in Tuscon, Charlotte is quietly charming, respected by her colleagues, and meticulous in her criticism of students’ work. She is (reluctantly) chairing a literary prize panel: reading the manuscripts is onerous, in addition to reading her students’ manuscripts.
But life was not always so tranquil. She has come a long way from her working-class Iowa roots and her alcohol problems. She has always been a star academically, but almost died in an alcohol-related accident in college (her fault), had sex with her grad school roommate’s boyfriend, and developed a dangerous infection after an abortion she never told her husband about. Alcohol and drugs were at the root of the problems, but she also was the only student from Iowa in the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City 20 years ago. She found it stressful to socialize with sophisticated workshop students who had graduated from Ivy League schools, traveled in Europe, and never worried about money.
Despite her success, she is lonely in Tuscon, even though she is married to Will, an art historian she began dating in college. He is loyal, but rigid and controlling, and doesn’t look for social life outside the marriage. He orders her not to feed “Bad Cat,”as she humorously refers to the mangy black cat that prowls the neighborhood, and he does not like her wasting water on the 15-foot hedge of oleanders she planted from pots 11 years ago. (She does both on the sly.)
When her old roommate, Esme, who has ignored her letters and phone calls for twenty years, shows up on her doorstep and invites her to dinner, Charlotte asks no questions. She loved Esme, a Writers’ Workshop student with whom she’d shared an apartment in Iowa City. Unfortunately, Esme dropped out to marry Jeremy, a Southerner and fellow student with an inflated estimate of his talent, who decides they don’t need the Workshop to write.
Charlotte is anxious: should she ask them if they published? Will, who considers Esme a bad friend, is furious that they are going to dinner. He wonders what Esme wants. And, yes, she does want something.
This deceptively simple novel goes back and forth in time, as Charlotte tries to piece together the puzzle of her history in Iowa and Arizona At one point, Evans inserts an autobiographical short story Charlotte wrote for the workshop. (By the way, Evans, too, is an alumna of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) Her descriptions of the cutthroat competition among the writers, their hard drinking at parties, and and obsequiousness with visiting writers seem very realistic. And I especially enjoyed reading about places in Iowa City, my hometown, in the 1980s: the Hamburg Inn, the River Room, the English-Philosophy Building, the Mill.. all still there.
Here are a couple of paragraphs about Oakland Cemetery.
I went to Oakland Cemetery for my run. Oakland Cemetery sat on the eastern skirt of Iowa City. Its roads ran between bare oak trees and evergreens, and I liked the way that I could leave the asphalt for dirt paths or old roads of red bricks that were rounded by wear, broken up, or disappearing altogether. Still, in a hooded sweatshirt of Will’s, I felt a little lonely and anonymous….
Heart full of missing what I sensed was not entirely Will–a feeling that had been with me at least since I was old enough to understand the lyrics of love songs on the radio and my mother’s Johnny Mathis records–I started around the cemetery’s largest and most famous grave, a monument topped by a giant figure that some called the Black Angel and invested with both terrors and benedictions…. and ahead of me, like an object in the can-you-find-it pictures I had loved as a kid, the perfectly still figure of a buff-colored deer magically detached itself from the cemetery’s early winter background of dun grass and leafless hedges and headstones…. A deer, two deer, three. They blinked their big, long-lashed eyes at me, it felt like. Then so very delicately they shifted and turned, cantered off elegantly on their neat black hooves in the direction of a wire fence that divided the cemetery from the woods of Hickory Hill Park…