Books

Two Novels by Renegade Women

If the weather outside is frightful, why not read?Credit…Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Leah Greenblatt

Leah Greenblatt is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn. Her most recent review for the Book Review was of “The Woman in Me,” by Britney Spears.

Dear readers,

In general, I love the festive, frantic busyness of December — all those windblown and perennially overcommitted New Yorkers careening toward the holidays and the fresh calendar year waiting just beyond with bells on. It’s also my birthday month; a celebration to squeeze in between a thousand other shiny, convivial things. Two years ago, though, my annual senescence landed in the midst of the grimmest kind of literary hat trick: first the death of bell hooks on Dec. 15, followed two days later by Eve Babitz, and then just before Christmas the final blow, Joan Didion.

Which is not to say their lives were somehow misbegotten or cut tragically short; we should all be so lucky to straddle two centuries with such achievements and exit covered in glory. The ache I felt at their collective passing was more ordinary sadness mixed with a sort of existential envy: Forget the navel-gazing Substacks and teapot social-media squabbles of contemporary lit — would there ever be writers like that again who really lived? Give me earthquakes in El Salvador and naked chess with famed French Dadaists! Let me disrupt academia, feminism and even grammar like an absolute boss!

In the wake of all that secondhand loss, a conversation with the novelist Kevin Wilson brought the unexpected consolation of a new, less-celebrated lady crush. For years, he said, he had been obsessed with collecting the hard-to-find works of Theodora Keogh, a thrice-married granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt who once lived on a tugboat in New York harbor, kept a pet margay (think: small ocelot) that allegedly nibbled part of her ear off, and worked as a dancer in South America before turning to writing delectable highbrow pulp like “Street Music” and “The Tattooed Heart.”

More fun facts: Keogh is said to be the rare female contemporary who ever received critical praise from her fellow renegade and legendary tough customer Patricia Highsmith. Despite their shared fondness for European expat-dom and unbound sexuality, I don’t know if Thea and Patty (those are obviously their nicknames in my head) ever met. But I like to think that the two books in this week’s dispatch are still in conversation somehow. And that in whatever jazzy afterlife exists for wayward novelists, they’re up there ashing carelessly into their martinis, and letting ids and peckish wildcats run free.

Leah


“Meg,”by Theodora Keogh

Fiction, 1950

Messy Marvins of the world, I ask you: Have ever felt more seen by a sentence than “Meg simply did not know what it was to be neat”? While the other students at her Manhattan all-girls private school arrive immaculately pressed, stern nursemaids in tow, the 12-year-old muse of Keogh’s slim cometlike debut straggles in “hot and breathless, tearing up on skates or on foot. She was always alone, her hair already flying from its braids in stiff wisps, her face proud and self-reliant from the daily battle with New York streets.”

Left almost entirely unsupervised by her distracted, glamorous parents, Meg makes the city her oyster, with all the grit and pungency that little bivalve implies. Whether casually blackmailing a lesbian teacher or blithely confronting a would-be Humbert Humbert at an automat, Meg rarely abides by any natural law beyond her own whimsy, though she also nakedly seeks out friendship and approval — both from a conventionally pretty classmate and from a gang of ragamuffin boys who hang out on the waterfront. (The latter leads to a quietly brutal sexual encounter, portrayed with wrenching plainness.)

The murder of a prostitute, the musings of a blind landlady and the psychosexual tug of war between a midlife married couple color the corners of a story that is, at 144 pocket-size pages, already full to brimming. But it’s Keogh’s prose, bright and ruthless, that breathes life into this odd, vibrant book; no wonder Highsmith swooned.

Read if you like: The Franny bits in “Franny & Zooey”; the great Slits song “Typical Girls.”
Available from: Secondhand bookstores and weird corners of eBay, mostly.


“The Glass Cell,”by Patricia Highsmith

Fiction, 1964

Dear reader, please do not judge the true-crimey cover of this early-2000s reissue — though that is what nearly made me leave it in the street, where it languished in a pile of autumn leaves and half-dead kitchen appliances. Out of print for decades after its initial publication, “The Glass Cell” is far from peak Highsmith, but it is eminently devourable nonetheless. The plot, inspired by her correspondence with a prison inmate, drops directly into a Southern state penitentiary, where a respectable young engineer from New York finds himself railroaded for financial misdeeds and serving six interminable years.

At first, Philip Carter believes in the inherent goodness of everything: law and order, his lovely wife. But prison is a place where humanity withers and hope goes to die; it’s also where a man can easily misplace his soul while picking up a wicked opiate habit. When he’s released and returns to Manhattan to rejoin his family, a new moral relativism follows him home. (What’s a little justified homicide when you’ve already lost so much?)

The characters are mostly archetypes and the dialogue is so hard-boiled its yolks have green around the edges. But the propulsive snap of Highsmith’s cool, unforgiving intellect is on almost every page; it’s a feel-bad read you can finish in a day.

Read if you like: Barbiturates, bad decisions, noir night at any revival house.
Available from: Primarily two reissues — one from Norton in 2004, and Virago in 2014 (if you prefer a much cooler cover).


Why don’t you …

  • Learn a little more about Keogh’s unbridled life in this piquant, too-brief Paris Review piece from the late Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar?

  • Extend your Thanksgiving gratitude via George Saunders’s poignant, perfect ode to his college mentors in the vintage New Yorker essay “My Writing Education: A Timeline”?

  • Make like Michael Fassbender’s Smiths-loving assassin in the recent dry-eyed David Fincher thriller “The Killer,” and pick up the guitarist Johnny Marr’s creamy new coffee-table tribute, “Marr’s Guitars”? Or give it to any emotional hit men in your life.


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