A Time to Be Born

The inclusion of snippets from Dawn Powell’s journal in one of the latest New Yorkers left me hungry for more of her work. This was pub’d in 1942, the New York society people agog with wartime fervor, patriotism sweeping the furs and jewels off ladies’ backs so they can be more serious about their efforts. It takes a while for you to be introduced to the character you’re supposed to care about most, Vicky—first we hear about how cold-hearted Amanda slept her way into getting her book published and then married the important publisher, Evans. This couple is brutal in its quest for prestige and fame, very two dimensional. Vicky’s introduced back in Ohio, her lover having run off with her business partner, humiliating her. Vicky rents a room from her brother and shares a bed with her niece; once they get wind that she wants to move to New York they start to panic about missing the cash she adds to the household, but not to miss her. They put out word around town that they expect her to fail in NYC and be back in a few months (she doesn’t). Amanda is pressed into service by her childhood friend Ethel to help Vicky, and she sets her up with a job and apartment, conveniently used as a spot during the day to tryst with her on-again-off-again lover Ken. Of course Ken falls for Vicky (as does another extremely old wealthy man), and the bad people fall from grace while the good ‘uns happily ever after. It felt a bit like reading a script for a 1940s movie.

Powell does great work humorously depicting the characters, like this summation of the woman who stole Vicky’s hometown boy, now pregnant and married but visiting Vicky’s NYC apartment: “Eudora Brown had been assured by her physician that a glass of wine could not possibly injure her coming heir, and on the strength of this medical support was drinking straight Bacardi whenever she could get he bottle out of Mr. Elroy’s or Ken Saunders’ hands. After her initial hearty but shamefaced greeting of Vicky, she allowed her conversation to lapse into one chief word, which was ‘stinks.'”

Also the feeling of the world spinning apart: