About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, November 23, 2009

122 - Property Of

Property Of, by Alice Hoffman (Berkley Books, 2000; orig. published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1974).

Dust jacket excerpt: "When Property Of was first published, Kirkus Reviews described it as 'that precious commodity, the first novel of great promise.' That promise was fulfilled, as Alice Hoffman went on to give us such acclaimed bestsellers as Here on Earth, Practical Magic, and Turtle Moon. Here, she introduces us to 'the Property of the Orphans' -- sullen, sultry, tough girls who belong to the boys on the Avenue -- and a lonely, infatuated outsider who wants desperately to belong to someone as well. And as she determinedly romances the gang's brooding, fearless leader, she will discover what can, and cannot, be possessed -- and what can happen when you hand your heart over to a man who claims to care nothing about love."

I found Property Of a short, deceptively simple book that packs an emotional wallop. I only finished it yesterday, but suspect it will be one of those whose characters haunt me for quite a while.

The story is set on the Avenue, a gritty Manhattan neighborhood home to Monty's candy store and contested by two rival gangs, the Orphans and the Pack. It opens in January on the Night of the Wolf, described by our unnamed narrator as "the hour when the Orphans went hunting their enemy from the south end of the Avenue -- the Pack; a night to celebrate when the snow is covering alleyways and the moon shines white." After considerable wheedling, she convinces her old friend Danny the Sweet, a peripheral, none-too-bright Orphan, to let her tag along to the gang's secret meeting. She's not interested in the Orphans' war council, and sees the Property -- "those girls in mascara and leather and silence who belonged to the Orphans" -- as having nothing to do with her; in fact, as she muses on the way into their clubhouse, she's not exactly sure what she expects. "Did I imagine that the Orphans were all like Danny? Smarter, maybe, but with kind, chocolate-covered hearts?"

She is, however, fascinated with gang president McKay, having watched him from afar for who knows how long:
"McKay -- I knew something of him. I had memorized the lettering on the back of his leather jacket. 'President of the Orphans." I could conjure the name, the sound of his boot heels on cement; I could recite the number of the license plate of his '59 Chevy in my sleep. McKay -- President of the Orphans at seventeen, sworn into office on the night of Alf Canntini's death. An hour after Canntini had totaled his Corvette, the Avenue knew that McKay was now President; for four years, the Avenue had known the name of the leader of the Orphans. ...

"So. McKay. I forgot cement, and Tosh at the doorway, and melted ice seeping into my boot. I forgot fear of alleys and the lyrics to all the songs I ever knew. And I remembered only how many girls in Brooklyn and Queens had carved McKay's name into their thighs with slick razor blades. His name in hearts on subway trains and in toilets. President Of. McKay. I could not help but turn."
The first chapter introduces some of the book's principal themes: the battle between belonging ("the Pack") and isolation ("the Orphans"); the violence and destructiveness intrinsic to love, Orphan style; and the role of the gang's female affiliates as dependent, disaffected Property. While the narrator tells McKay, on meeting him, "'I don't belong to anyone. ... I belong to myself,'" her actions tell a different story. Later, she reflects,
"I fell in love with them on that night, though I suppose I had been even before I knew any names. I could not help it, because the spell was cast, the mood was set, and with the wind of the Avenue moving around me and the ice shining like a mirror, there was no choice at all. ...

"From where I stood I could only hear sighs, words that were a story of love. Nothing more than that. And nothing less. And so I waited in the alleyway. I waited for some time, smoking a cigarette, watching for the morning, for McKay."
All it takes, on that first Night of the Wolf, is McKay's asking the narrator to wait for him in the clubhouse while he heads out to hunt the pack, and she's a goner, beginning her "walk into darkness where no neon reaches."
"Look, I was in love.

"What more can I say? Oh, I was a fool. Is that it? If that's what you want me to say I can't say it. Listen. It wasn't only McKay. It was all of them, each one. Even the Dolphin, in a way. From that night on I thought of nothing but the Orphans, nothing but McKay. That's how love is, isn't it? Song lyrics and printing the name hundreds of times on hundreds of pieces of paper."
Even though McKay tells her from the get-go that he "don't take any Property. ... I find it too constricting," and Number One Property Starry warns her repeatedly that "McKay is gonna make you cry" and "McKay screws everyone," she forges ahead. The next morning, after the Night has left Starry missing a tooth and Pack President Kid Harris's hands shattered, the narrator dispenses with her virginity, describing the scene in painfully clear-headed terms:
"Sometimes love is made on the George Washington Bridge and the traffic still flows by and the radio music plays on without interruption. No sirens flash, no gale winds rise off the Hudson. I did not love McKay any more than I had when I watched him from second-story windows without knowing the color of his eyes."
One aspect of the story that's either brilliant or maddening is the narrator's utter inscrutability. Throughout the course of the novel, we learn a good deal about what makes McKay tick, but not who the narrator is or why she's so drawn to him. Perhaps this is deliberate on Hoffman's part; this is, after all, a tale about losing your identity in a blood-from-a-stone attempt to wring love from someone utterly incapable of returning it. The narrator desperately wills herself to see what she wants to see, knowing all the while that it's useless; early on, when fellow Orphan Jose chides McKay for bringing her to a meeting, McKay angrily stares him down.
"'You say something to me?' McKay said quietly. Jose blinked his eyes against th light. 'I don't think I heard you. You say something to me?'

"I could feel Jose's fear and the anger of McKay. Was McKay defending me and my presence in this uptown apartment? Could this be something like love? Or only honor once again?"
Above all, McKay values honor -- which, as the narrator and others observe repeatedly, is a dangerous proposition for a gang leader. Advises convenience store owner, local drunk-cum-sage Monty:
"'Oh, I've heard McKay is a man of his word. Yes, yes, a man of honor. ... [So] is McKay well known for his honor. That is the problem. As you should never trust a liar so should you never trust a man of honor. Those two are the worst of mankind. ... McKay and the Orphans are not to be separated. Be with one, and you be with the other.'"
Six months later, Monty's words continue to ring true. Our narrator has discovered and occasionally shared McKay's heroin habit; the two are living together, but still, she thinks:
"After all the months, the words, the kisses, I still have not gotten what I wanted. Yes, McKay allowed me to unpack my suitcase in his closet, but he would not admit me into his sol. And I wanted nothing less. If you say that was too much to ask, I will agree. And then I will repeat: I wanted nothing less. It seemed I could not get what I wanted."
But hope springs eternal, almost. Gangsters, both innocent and less so, die, none of them honorably. Others foresake the orphans for coupledom; Starry, who has become overly dependent on heroin and prostitution, is banished. McKay publicly cheats on the narrator with aspiring Number One Property Kind, but the narrator, knowing Kind sees only McKay's title, is unfazed. "Kind read the golden letters the way McKay wanted them to be read, but the Dolphin and I saw them as McKay did -- as a lie." Ultimately, even a violent coup that strips McKay of his beloved President Of leather and nets him a six-month stint in prison isn't enough to turn her affections, though it does give her more than enough time to ponder her role:
"For six months I did what women do. I waited. This is what women are taught to be good at. It's said that a woman's life is merely preparation for the primal nine-month wait. Whatever the reason, they do it well. Sometimes they drink or bite their fingernails down to the wrist. They count stars and initials and wait: for something to happen, for something to pass, to change. to begin, to end. In wide cotton blouses beside empty cradles there is the wait for a child; in black and veils there is the wait for death. In bathrobes and with painted eyes, with the counting of stars and the turning of glossy magazine pages, there is the wait for him, for the man. There is always the wait for him. ...

"They walk; they drink coffee; they drink gallons of gin or wine; they place their heads in the ovens or under the hair driers; they call fifty men into their bedroom at one time, or they never turn their eyes to men. They watch second hands and suns and moons; they find ways to fill the waiting.

"And the reason they wait is that they do not know they have a choice. The reason they wait is that they do it so well; because it is what they are expected to do. ...

"And do women complain of all this waiting. Sometimes; sometimes some of them complain. Some of them are allowed to complain, allowed to pull at their hair, to wail, or to list their complaints in lipstick or ink upon the wall. Those that do this do it well. Some complain, but most do not.

"Either way, they wait. Usually, they wait for men. Men who are in offices or in jail. They wait for men to go away; they wait for them to come home. They wait for men to live; and it's true, many of them wait for men to die. They also do this well; even if the waiting takes a lifetime; they do it well."
As to whether the narrator's waiting will take a lifetime, or whether she'll eventually stop carving McKay's name into flesh and trains and remember her own, well ... you'll have to read the book.

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