Counterpoint Press, 9/2002
things in Secondhand Smoke
just never want to die. The house
on Valence Street sits across from a cemetery. Rumor has it that
dead feet can be seen sticking up from beneath the soil. Similarly,
Ms. Friedmann finds immortality in family, in truth, and in their
propensity to reappear unexpectedly.
I dont know
Patty Friedmann and I wouldnt presume to describe her, but
I know her writing. I know that the way she carves a sentence gives
you the sense that shes always known how to do it. Secondhand
, her fifth book, flows like cold water down a parched
throat. Her readers are thirsty for this one, and they wont
The hardest part
about writing is the fear of exposing ones self. Secondhand
reminds us that the best writing comes from that state
of "nakedness." Patty Friedmann stands before us honestly
and presents a fictional story that cannot help but to be true.
Jerusha is the
novel's main character. Cantankerous, uncouth, and audacious, shes
also no less endearing than the old lady we remember living on our
block in our youth. Shes just lost her husband, but the emotion
is hollow, and we recognize hers as a life that has been settled
upon rather than chosen. Similarly, her surroundings bear the marks
of accumulation rather than pride. Tired paintings, yellowed paint,
and photos of children that have grown bittersweet with age scar
the walls. Though she makes no apologies, we recognize in her a
love that begs to be more than toxic and suffocating to its consumers.
Jerusha speaks her mind because its the only way she knows
to live. When her husband Woodrow lays dying, he asks her again,
"Tell me why I should want to live?" Even then, she offers
only the same exhausted words she has mustered before, nothing more
tangible than the same stale secondhand smoke.
daughter, has managed to escape the small house on Valence Street,
the stifling effects of her mothers smoke, the agitation of
living in a city that reminds her of everything shes trying
to forget. But we soon see that shes escaped nothing at all.
Her life in Jacksonville, Florida wallows in the same placating,
humid air that she had tried to flee.
Shes a free
spirit in a way that we sense is unhealthy. She takes risks to elicit
her mother's homogenous reaction, the one from which she is perpetually
running. She fights off the sexual advances of her boss, but only
in as much as shes sure theyll not disappear completelyshe
wants something in her life to be real. He façade only begins
to fail when she is faced with the death of her best friend Angela,
who was Jerusha's archenemy. Only then does she begin to see a softer
side of herself; she can no longer ignore the emptiness therein.
It is only then that she needs her mothers embrace to survive
son Wilson has found success, but not the variety that great men
covet. His Ph.d. does nothing to allay the fact that his wife wants
another man. To this, Wilson offers little more than a lukewarm
response, one that hes honed over the years. His ex-wife can
no longer stand him and his mother has never seen him for who he
is. But with the quietest of efforts, he does nothing more with
his time than try to please them all. Hes made a life out
of "doing the right thing"; just as quietly he faces the failure
of his efforts.
growing up voiceless, unnoticed. He was the good kid, even when
he was bad, and he was never favored by anyone. Now this educated
man finds himself in middle age with absolutely nothing to say.
Inside, a pocket of sadness resides where his words want to live.
His mother burns
her house down, but he doesnt want to save her. And he isnt
prepared to find her sleeping on the streets. But because its
the right thing, he brings her home, where she immediately incites
yet more havoc in his already chaotic home. Despite his best efforts,
the blocks tumble down. It is their nature.
But for this family,
fiction permits the pieces to connect. Jerusha finds meaning with
the help of a young boy who understands her in a way for which she
has always yearned. Zib finally gives herself permission to feel
something other than hate. And Wilson begins to see that to make
a difference in his life, he needs to be present in it.
isnt saucy with southern pleasures. Instead, its a book
about a blue-collar family that doesnt know how to save itself.
Its a book about the individual's inability to leave the past
behind. Secondhand Smoke
does not seek life in fancy words
and clever euphemisms. It tingles because its raw and true.
And, after all, the best any writer can do is to give her readers
a truth they can recognize.