"Desperate Characters"

A brilliant, cheerless little classic from 1970, long out of print, resurfaces.

Andrew O'Hehir
June 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Otto and Sophie Bentwood's world is falling apart. They are gentrifiers -- even if the word doesn't exist yet -- in late-1960s Brooklyn, a childless professional couple too old to be part of the apparent social rebellion under way around them and too young not to feel tormented by it. Otto, a lawyer in the process of separating his practice from that of his partner and oldest friend, is retreating into a cocoon of scatological rage. Constantly dwelling on images of filth, disease and excrement, he apparently hates the young, the old who try to be young, liberals, conservatives, Americans, realtors, the urban poor, the rural poor and, perhaps most of all, himself.

But it's Sophie, a drifting, listless searcher who has given up working as a French translator, who is at the heart of "Desperate Characters," Paula Fox's grim, glittering, satirical 1970 novel. Viciously bitten by a stray cat she feeds out of kindness, Sophie is first terrified, then almost hopefully hypnotized by the possibility that she has been infected with rabies. This specter of horrible agony and death hovers over the inconsequential disasters that bedevil the Bentwoods, shaping events into what seems like a sinister pattern: Otto's spurned partner shows up drunk in the middle of the night, making a halfhearted effort to seduce Sophie; someone throws a stone through a friend's window during a party; the Bentwoods' country house is senselessly vandalized. What emerges is not just a chilling tale about an embittered, not-quite-loveless marriage but a remarkable portrait in miniature of a city, and a civilization, that are seemingly cursed, or undergoing a schizophrenic breakdown, or both.


Such critics as Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling lavished praise on "Desperate Characters" when it was first published, and it remains a much-revered book in literary circles. Yet it never sold well, and this paperback edition is its first reappearance for many years. After reading it, one finds neither its high reputation nor its meager sales surprising. "Desperate Characters" is a masterwork of economical prose; it has been compared, with some justice, to the short novels of Flaubert and Tolstoy. Fox specializes in terse, sidelong descriptions of characters and interiors, from the strangled, Eurocentric good taste of Otto and Sophie's brownstone to the "profound show of indifference to planning, to decoration" in an aging bohemian's cluttered Central Park West apartment. But for all the brilliance of her writing, Fox's vision is cold and cheerless. Certainly any member of the American bourgeoisie can identify with the Bentwoods' combination of smugness and paranoia -- with Sophie's sense that "If I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside" -- but the couple's familiarity doesn't make them any more likable.

Fox's haunting depiction of New York at times seems strikingly contemporary, at other times unimaginably distant. Like the city we know today, hers is a battlefield where desperate poverty and self-satisfied gentility contend in brutal Darwinian struggle. But New York in 1970, for all the rear-guard actions of all the Otto Bentwoods, was sliding into what seemed to be a bottomless abyss of white flight, municipal power failures and epidemic crime. It was a place where, as Sophie puts it, "Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life ... was anarchy." Otto and Sophie would be amazed if they could see the city of 1999, in which it's the poor who are hunted to the margins of urban life now that capital has reasserted, more strongly than ever, its rule of tyrannical whimsy. Reading this claustrophobic but remarkable book, one can only wonder who is more fatally deluded -- the desperate characters of the Bentwoods' era or the hyperconfident ones of our own.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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