A disclaimer: I spent four happy years in the same Inwood Hill neighborhood at the northern end of Manhattan that Carole Glickfeld so accurately and lovingly describes in Useful Gifts. How I yearned for the old neighborhood while reading this book of threaded short stories and a novella, how I longed to walk along upper Broadway again, and climb into the neighborhood’s two jewels (though they’re now dangerous, as Glickfeld notes) of parks: Fort Tryon, with its Cloisters—the great Medieval and Renaissance museum—and Inwood Hill.
The first of the book’s two sections, “Arden Street,” is composed of ten short stories, all told from the point of view of little Ruthie Zimmer, surely one of the most delightful limited narrators to grace the pages of contemporary fiction. Think of Ruthie as the spiritual cousin of Grace Paley’s child narrators: a smart kid who’s constantly getting things wrong in the real, adult world, which creates the humor that permeates many of these stories. On an outing to the beach at Coney Island, ten-or-so-year-old Ruthie escapes the sun and heat by sitting in the shade under the boardwalk. There she’s an inadvertent witness to a young couple doing what young couples do:
The girl started laughing and the blanket was wiggling like crazy, so I figured
he was tickling her, until she started making noises like he was hurting her. I guess he said he was sorry because she put her arms around his neck, outside the blanket, and hugged him.
But Ruthie lives in a far from idyllic world. Her parents are deaf-mutes, and she’s at constant pains to correct insensitive adults who call them “deaf and dumb.” But their disability is the least of their problems: money in the household is, at least on the surface, scarce; and Ruthie’s father, Albert, is a miser and philanderer. Just how much of a miser and selfish philanderer the man is we find out in the novella, “Relics of Stars,” that concludes the volume. Plus the man’s a household tyrant and bully of the first stripe. When Ruthie’s older sister defies him, he beats Melva until he breaks her nose. Earlier, when Melva calls her father a cheapskate, “
he had her up against the wall and was twisting her arm behind her.” (“My Father’s Darling”) Finally, so traumatized by their father is Melva, she attempts suicide, on more than one occasion. Ruthie’s older brother Sidney also comes in for the man’s brutality and bullying. Because Sidney is dating a gentile woman, Albert tells him he must stop seeing the beautiful Delores, this from a man who’s cheating on his wife with a gentile woman.
This first section of Useful Gifts is all told from Ruthie’s limited, and sometimes hilarious, point of view and in the past tense. When Glickfeld leads us into the second section, “Retracings,” which takes place some twenty years later, though not in the current present, the author switches to the present tense and to a third person narrator. Here we see the effects on Ruthie of her brutal, capricious, selfish father, who nevertheless, in his own way, seems to think he dotes selflessly on his youngest child. Ruthie is now living in Portland, Oregon (as far from her father as she can get and still be on the American continent), and this section centers on a visit she makes to see her father on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebration. Albert has divorced Ruthie’s mother and now lives in an assisted living apartment for deaf-mutes. He has two girlfriends, and half bragging, and half out of concern, reveals to Ruthie just how much money he’s going to leave her, a sum that is breathtaking. Ruthie’s reaction, however, is one of rage: that if he’d been more generous, the family’s existence wouldn’t have been so mean and miserable: “On your salary from the post office (never mind the stocks) you could have paid for art school for Melva, but you said you couldn’t afford it.” Part of the irony of this section is that in some ways Ruthie is very much the true spiritual daughter of the father she loathes but can’t help but love, on some primal level. Like him, she’s sexually promiscuous, in breathtaking fashion. The number of sexual encounters and different partners she crams into a two day period would be the stuff of porn movies if it all weren’t so sad.
This is a collection I really wanted to love, and not just because Glickfeld and I both lived in the same section of New York City. The opening section is often charming and funny, to the point of hilarity; the stories grow darker, of necessity, as this section grinds to its conclusion. And the second section is a grinding dissection, as it must be, of the consequences of such a dysfunctional upbringing, and I’m not speaking about having deaf-mute parents, but of living in a household in which the father is, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster.
But I found some basic problems in the telling. For one thing, Glickfeld’s insistence on giving us example after example after example of how deaf mutes verbally communicate in short-hand, truncated sentences that often reverse the normal word order of sentences, tends, after a while, to act as a brake on the narration, and an annoyance in the general pleasure the reader takes in these wonderful stories. The second basic problem is the shift to a present-tense, third person narration in the second section. This strategy, at least to me, sucks the air out of the novella. The technique creates too much distance between the characters and the reader, and Ruthie is one character we’ve come to love, and would love her still, even for all her peccadillos, were she allowed by Glickfeld to continue telling us her story. But maybe that’s Glickfeld’s point: that as adults we must put away our childish things and be more acted upon than acting. Useful Gifts is a worthy collection, one that I’d not hesitate to recommend, but one I would wish were slightly different in the telling if not the tale.