Lucky Us: A Novel
by Joan Silber
A review by Chris Bolton
Thinking about Joan Silberís novel Lucky Us, I keep coming back to Dana Kennedyís comment in The New York Times Book Review:
Silber's way of approaching her prose is the literary equivalent of that famous admonition attributed to Spencer Tracy, the one about trying never to be caught acting. Her style, direct and immediate, is such that you never catch her self-consciously writing.
Silber manages several difficult tricks in this book: she convincingly alternates narrative voices; she deftly avoids easy sentimentality, preferring to let the reader respond to a scene rather than wring tears with manipulative writing; and best of all, she tells a simple story very well. These are more difficult to pull off than they may seem.
Consider the narrative, which switches between chapters from rambunctious twenty-something Elisa to her boyfriend, Gabe, more than twenty years her senior. Not only does Silber manage to convince us of her charactersí ages and make each voice distinctive and instantly recognizable, but her plumbing of Gabeís thoughts leaves no doubt as to his gender. There is a myth that male writers have trouble creating credible female voices but female writers have no difficulty crafting male characters. Consider, however, Jeanette Wintersonís self-consciously esoteric Written On the Body, which has been praised for never revealing the narratorís sex -- but any man who reads the book knows the narrator is a woman. Winterson is simply unable to think like a man, or write the way a man thinks. In Lucky Us, Gabe doesnít hit a single false note; she gets the obvious details as well as the smaller, more intimate ones that women arenít supposed to know about. I could easily have believed Silber traded chapters with a male ghost writer.
Grateful as I am that Lucky Us never sinks to the level of a shameless tear-jerker, I believe Silberís third trick is even more impressive. In an age of endless tomes loaded with pretension, itís astonishing to find a 276-page novel that moves quickly and deftly, focusing (with no footnotes or self-consciously "clever" prose) on only two main characters and their seemingly insignificant lives.
Elisa and Gabe are lovers. Gabe once served time in prison for drug dealing and Elisa used to lead a typically reckless, early-twenties lifestyle of heavy drinking, casual drug use, and even more casual sex. They approach their relationship casually, almost bemusedly, until a simple whim leads Gabe to propose -- and to her astonishment, Elisa accepts. Then a blood test reveals Elisa is HIV-positive.
We pause to recall countless "very special" movies of the week with a similar premise and cringe at the waterworks ahead. But they never arrive. Instead, Silber examines the affect the virus has on Elisa, Gabe, and their relationship. Elisa doesnít magically change into a courageous martyr while Gabe struggles to maintain his faith in their timeless love. Instead, she deals with the disease on a complex, human level, with simple observations that real people are likely to make:
It scared me when I got my period. I knew the blood, which was not just blood but shed tissue and mucus, was not likely to get into anyone elseís bloodstream, but it showed red and lethal, and what was I supposed to do with my used and polluted tampons? I had to call a hot line to find out how to dispose of them. The woman was crisp and cheerful, I was embarrassed.
Elisa sinks into despair and turns back to the reckless lifestyle that led to her infection in the first place. By this point in the novel, our investment in the characters and their small but appealing lives makes Elisaís downward spiral heartbreaking where it could easily have turned melodramatic. If the sum of the novel isnít quite equal to its parts, perhaps thatís more a compliment to the simplicity of its story and the credibility of its characters -- for, whose lives ultimately wind up with a riveting conclusion? Nonetheless, I closed the cover with a sense of satisfaction mingled with sorrow at the end of my involvement with Gabe and Elisa -- and upon rereading the book in preparation for this review, felt like I was revisiting longtime friends.
These are hideous cliches, of course. Everyone refers to the characters in a beloved book as friends and claims it was hard to leave them. Thatís what good stories are supposed to do -- involve us in a world similar to, but distinctly different from our own, and engage us with characters who get under our skin in such a way that we never want them to leave. This is a storytelling art form that gets short shrift since itís not as obvious or as easy to praise as the more lavish graduate-school writing that ends up with the awards and fawning (yet curiously vague) praise of critics.
Lucky Us doesnít shatter our perceptions of the universe, satirize our consumer-driven society (or anything at all), or call attention to its authorís creative prowess; rather, it moves along unobtrusively, draws us in, and leaves us with a warm sense of recognition and identification. As Kennedy noted in her review, Silber is that slyest of character actors, sneaking a radiant performance past the chest-thumping and posturing of the more glamorous movie stars.