Uneasy in Brooklyn

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I feel blessed to have discovered Paula Fox. Her Desperate Characters is one of those novels that, because of its clarity and compression, makes an almost physical impact on you. Instantly absorbed into the characters’ world, your delight and anticipation are only marred by dread of finishing the book – and this one is, cruelly, only 176 pages long.

First published in 1970, it has as its central characters Sophie and Otto Bentwood, an affluent middle-aged couple living in a Brooklyn poised uneasily between decay and gentrification. Sophie is bitten by a stray cat and the events of the next three days are underscored by her terror at the possible outcome. We are both drawn into this fear and bemused by her unwillingness to take any action to prevent what she most dreads. Reading it on the Tube, I inwardly cried, ‘For God’s sake get a tetanus jab, woman!’ The nervous shifts and tics of my fellow travellers suggested that my inner cry had been all too outer. It’s that kind of book.

For me, the fact that it was written in the 1960s makes it particularly interesting. I was a 19-year-old hippy when the novel was published and, reading it now from the slumped wasteland that is middle age, I recall with a mixture of irritation and pride my vociferous contempt for my parents’ adherence to the philosophy of golf and the finger-bowl. Here, the insurrectionist young are mainly offstage characters who drift through parties, cool, confident and contemptuous. ‘The young are dying of freedom,’ Otto declares splenetically. His partner, Charlie, leaves their shared law firm because of Otto’s lack of concern for the ‘undesirables’ that he wants to represent. Charlie pronounces a savage verdict on both Bentwoods:

You won’t survive what is happening now. People like you . . . stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection , while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.

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About the contributor

Jenny Baynes is a lecturer who currently teaches Literature at the City Literary Institute. She also writes ‘performance poetry’ which has been featured on BBC2.

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