All summer I’ve been writing about cattle. My father’s bull Atoka Gold is a character, one of the purebred Herefords Dad raised during the early 1950s in California. What got me drafting a memoir essay was that in early June, when I brought my wife home from having surgery on her foot, I found a stockman’s cane among the umbrellas in our foyer.
I dimly recalled receiving the cane when I was four. This was about 1959. We had resettled by then in southwestern Georgia, and Dad bought a bull from a nearby farmer, R.W. Jones Jr. Walter Jones was a prominent breeder of polled (naturally hornless) Herefords who has since become legendary. He gave me the cane. Finding it again sent me into our basement, where I found Dad’s framed color photograph of Atoka Gold.
I wove my memories of what surrounded the cane, me, Dad, and Atoka Gold together with my research into Mr. Jones and polled Herefords. I braided in my wife’s recuperation this summer. There’s always so much to explain, but good writing concerns more than one thing—so, great. Except my essay grew at one point to 27 pages. Rather long!
In my mind from the start, the piece really illuminated the nature of memory, imagination, and story. But early readers wanted more about my relationship with my father. I resisted, having written so much before.
After I read The Odd Woman in the City, Vivian Gornick’s engaging new memoir, I turned back to the first page and began to read it again. How does it work so well? I wondered. A short book, at 175 pages, it is one long essay. Just series of short and flash essays, separated by space breaks, yet it moves.
Halfway through my second reading I saw the key. It was obvious, except I had read it so quickly before. So many scenes. Of course there’s her famous truth-telling persona, giving the low-down on herself and others. The text doesn’t rely on her opinions and confidences, on her attitude, however, but on her meeting and portraying others in dramatized action. If she’s not showing events unfold, she’s telling stories about herself, her circle, or some past denizen of the Big Apple. One vivid scene, pithy vignette, or juicy anecdote after another. Life before our eyes, as lived and perceived by this peppery child of the city. Though highly segmented, The Odd Woman and the City embodies the old-fashioned storytelling aesthetic Gornick recommends in The Situation and the Story.
Here her themes include friendship, especially in New York City, walking in the city, and encounters with strangers in the city. These are the confrontations of a lonely, solitary soul. A key thread in the book is her talks and walks with her gay friend Leonard. She portrays him as equally uncomfortable in his own skin, as similarly pessimistic, as another bleakly negative—yet captivating—personality. They can’t stand each other’s company more than once a week, but that meeting’s vital to them both. Her outrageous mother, whom she portrayed at length in her classic memoir Fierce Attachments also appears.