The Company She Keeps

Oh my. I’m dipping my toe back into Mary McCarthy’s writing and enjoying it hugely. The last time I read her was over ten years ago, gulping down Birds of America, The Group, and Intellectual Memoirs (which I dismissed as “Memoirs of a Trotskyite Who Slept With Lots of Men”). The Company She Keeps is a collection of six stories involving the same woman, with different angles in the mirror. Cruel and Barbarous Treatment is an intense story that promotes a lot of drama among characters that are never named, just noted as “she”, “the husband”, and “The Young Man”, along with the chorus of friends who witness the deterioration of a marriage. At the end, she’s on the train to Reno for her divorce, chagrined to find that her hubby has been receiving invitations for social engagements and intent on breaking things off with The Young Man, envisioning herself as a Young Divorcee and evaluating the male options in the club car.
Rogue’s Gallery is a somewhat tedious story following the employment of the woman for a crooked gallery owner, Mr. Sheer. She’s never paid, he sells art objects that he doesn’t own and thus scrambles to give the money to the rightful owner, making no profit. Eventually he loses the gallery and becomes a top salesman at another gallery, sending him into a spiral of success that he’s uncomfortable with, preferring to meet Meg/Margaret (the now named woman) for lunch to rehash old days.
The gem of the collection is The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt, painting an excruciating picture of a one night stand on a train as Meg heads west on another train, post-divorce, to tell her aunt in Portland about her upcoming second marriage. I’m reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own, in which she covers Mary McCarthy and sums up this story as “a sort of parable representing many a young girl’s transgressions, even if it does not concern itself with the steps in the sinner’s rehabilitation… The psychological fastidiousness and above all the belligerent mood of the surrendering girl are the essence of the story.”
The last three stories are deeper plunges into Meg’s Trotskyism and affairs, finishing up on the therapist’s couch at her second husband’s behest and revealing deep scars from her aunt’s strict (abusive) Catholic upbringing. I love the way McCarthy speaks truth about what her characters are thinking as they dance delicately towards courtship, the bland indifference of Meg, the keyed-up “I love you” sprinkled in the mouths of all the men who yearn for the physical connect. Despite my earlier intolerance, perhaps I’ll check out some of her other memoirs.