Northern Express Weekly, December 16, 1998
by Nancy Sundstrom

WOMEN IS SEARCH OF THEMSELVES

3 books explore woman’s place in landscapes
ranging from the heart to wildest Africa


“The human face is a limitless terrain that just pulls you right in...the geography of women is where nature itself takes course homeward bound, the long route or the short, the high road or the low.”

–Jack Fritscher, “The Geography of Women”

“Geography” is the operative term in three new and unique books about the emotional and physical quests of three different women in search of themselves.

A small Illinois town, the exotic landscapes of Kenya and the wild west provide the backdrops for “The Geography of Women,” “Rules of the Wild,” and “Waltzing the Cat,” respectively. Each features a strong heroine whose search for love challenges them to look within their own hearts, a distinct and vivid writing style, and an edgy sort of insight that lifts the work above some of the confines of the “journey of discover” genre.

A fast-talking and thoroughly delightful romantic comedy and Midwestern life in the late 1950’s, “The Geography of Women” is the 10th book and latest novel from the gifted author/essayist/photographer/film maker Jack Fritscher.

Yes, this is the same Jack Fritscher who taught film at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo in the early 1970’s, and then went on to become the country’s foremost writer of gay erotic fiction. This is also the same Fritscher who penned “Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera,” a remembrance of his relationship with his former lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as the epic tale of San Francisco life before the AIDS epidemic, “Some Dance to Remember.”

“Geography,” in many regards, is the best of Fritscher’s three novels. Its small town setting, memorable characters and compassionate perspective have already invited comparisons to Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café” and Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle,” and placed the author in the company of chroniclers like Twain, Faulkner, and more recently, Dorothy Allison (“Bastard Out of Carolina”).

The central character here is narrator Laydia Spain O’Hara, who says... “no smart alek comments, please, on accounta my Daddy, Big Jim O’Hara, won hisself a first place trophy in a stomach Steinway contest playin’ accordion at the Rainbow County fair the day I was born insteada bein home with my angel mama, her and me shovin, her trying to get me born, and me trying to get born, just so I could see what the world was all about.”

Here, as he does throughout the book, Fritscher displays the strength and economy of his writing. He presents an enormous amount of juicy detail so compactly that paragraphs like these flow like one of Robert Altman’s best tracking shots. Even the most peripheral of the 14 characters here are given full treatment, and what an ensemble it is.

There’s Laydia, a spunky, honest tomboy who knows in here heart that she’s “different”; Jessarose, the enigmatic “cinnamon girl” who is the object of Laydia’s affections, the hilarious femme fatale Mizz Lulabelle Harms; her husband, the pill-popping pharmacist Henry Apple; and traveling salesman Wilbur Fox, whose returns to town come at the most untimely moments. Fritscher weaves their lives together in a gentle, funny tapestry that celebrates why every moment of every life counts.

When many of us last visited Kenya, it was in the late 1930’s when Baroness Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinsen, wrote about life on her farm in the Ngong Hills in “Out of Africa,” which became an enormously successful film with Meryle Streep and Robert Redford in 1985.

Things have changed a bit in documentary film maker Francesca Marciano’s first novel, “Rules of the Wild,” with the Blixen spread having evolved into an upscale white suburb, home to both the Karen Shopping Centre and a young expatriate community. Esme, a beautiful young Italian woman, moves to Nairobi with a lover on a whim while trying to cope with the death of her beloved poet father. Much like Blixen once was, she becomes fascinated by the wild beauty of the land, and settles into life with a group of other expats who have disengaged themselves from everything familiar.

She encounters, and begins to love, two very different men–Adam, a safari leader and second-generation white Kenyan, and Hunter, a passionate English journalist covering the atrocities in Somalia and Rwanda, who brings Esme into contact with African people from whom the white community choose to remain distant.

“When I moved back here to live with Adam I knew Africans were going to play a big part in my life,” says Esme. “I hadn’t yet developed a behaviour of my own, but I didn’t particularly like any of the white-versus-African behaviour I saw around me. As a result, I overreacted: I was always on guard, too cautious, too kind, too careful never to upset anybody. I distributed astronomical tips to whoever did the smallest thing for me, and never dared protest when I was being taken advantage of. I seemed to be shooting for the award for Best White Girl of the Year.... That’s when I realized I was the one who was having a problem.

Marciano delivers a romantic, engrossing read as Esme resolves feelings about herself, the men in her life, and ultimately, East Africa itself.

Pam Houston’s funny and fine “Waltzing the Cat,” the follow-up to her well-received first book, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” is a collection of 12 short stories all featuring Lucy O’Rourke, a 30-something landscape photographer whose work takes her from the Ecuadorian jungles to the beaches of Provincetown.

A Daredevil who’s brushes with hang-gliding, hurricanes and white water rafting are less dangerous than her (usually) ill-fated skirmishes with love, Houston’s Lucy is a woman who thrives on making the most of a bad situation (“I always pick the wrong man...I’m kind of famous for it,” she says) and leaves herself open to destiny, such as in a chance meeting at an airport with Carols Castaneda, who sends here on the Colorado ranch she is unexpectedly left in her grandmother’s will.

Wisecracking, brace and sometimes quite touching, Lucy is a character whose everyday bits of business can be as engaging as her more dramatic adventures, as evidenced by the title story from the collection, which focuses on her family’s affection for a 29-pound cat. Houston is a promising new writer capturing the heart of women in settings traditionally reserved for men.

copyright Nancy Sundstrom

Copyright 2007 by Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. & Mark Hemry - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED