I did a reading with Margo Christie a little while ago, and we had an interesting discussion about using life experiences in memoir and fiction. I read from my memoir, Innocent, and she read from this novel, which is based on some of her own experiences.
Fourteen-year-old Becky Shelling idolizes her father, jazz trumpeter Ernie Shelling, a romantic figure whose gigs take him traveling or staying out till the wee hours. He in turn favors her over his step-daughter, treating Becky to dance lessons and taking her along to sing with one of his woman friends, Teri the Canary. To Becky, his glamorous work far outshines their shabby rowhouse in Highlandtown, a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore of formstone rowhouses with at least one bar, if not four, at every intersection.
Then he gets a gig in Miami and leaves, promising to send Becky a bus ticket. Although her stepmother continues to let Becky live there, life becomes more and more intolerable as her stepsister’s boyfriend and his rowdy friends take over the place whenever Arlene is at work. It’s 1974, but Becky has assembled a wardrobe out of the 1940s, thanks to Goodwill shops. Hoping for a stage career, she finds a job at a run-down dinner theater in Middle River, working as an usher, coat-check girl, costume repairer, or whatever else needed doing while snagging some small parts.
It’s there that she meets Lenny Moss, an older man who sells insurance and looks like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She becomes not just his mistress but also his employee when he fulfills his long-time dream of opening a bar on the Block, Baltimore’s famous red-light district. The Block used to stretch to several blocks of burlesque clubs but by the 1970s had begun its long slide down into an ever-shrinking area of peep shows and strip joints. Moss hopes to reverse this trend by imbuing his club with some of the opulence of the old days, when women wore fabulously beaded and embellished gowns and danced and teased with their fans and feathered boas.
Stories of older men and young teenaged girls make my skin crawl, but there’s something sweet about this one. Becky is so invested in becoming a 1940s glamour queen; she and Lenny meet on level ground when it comes to their dreams. However, morning always comes, and hanging out with her new friends on the Block, Becky begins to learn the truth about her father.
This award-winning book is thoroughly addictive. Long past my usual lights-out, Christie’s prose kept me reading, oh just one more page, one more chapter. Her dialogue is a delight, catching the nuances of the varied cast of characters, from clumsy teenaged boys to sultry torch singers. And bars and kitchens and gowns all come to life in her descriptions. It was also fun to hear all the stories about the Block in the old days. When I was growing up, it was still world-famous. I remember a doctor visiting us from India. “All I know about Baltimore,” he said, “is Fort McHenry and the Block.”
Holding onto the past, wanting to recreate a more dazzling time, seems relatively harmless. Becky’s story, though, makes me think again about the sometimes dangerous allure of nostalgia.
Have you read a novel where someone clings to the past, perhaps in a subtle way rather than insanely à la Miss Havisham?