FEATURE

Darkness Invisible

Mrs. Bridge BY Evan S. Connell. edited by James Salter. Counterpoint. Paperback, 256 pages. $14.
Mr. Bridge BY Evan S. Connell. North Point Press. Paperback, 367 pages. $29.

“ALL I WRITE ABOUT IS FAMILY,” Elizabeth Cox once remarked to Richard Yates, who had helped her with her first novel. “That’s all there is to write about,” Yates replied. The late Evan S. Connell might have disagreed: Though he wrote two masterpieces about family life in midcentury America, Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969), he also wrote a fascinating account of General Custer, along with a lot of other nonfiction, poetry, and an odd assortment of novels and short stories that might have been written by five or six different authors. That the Bridge novels are so clearly superior to Connell’s other books—and Mrs. Bridge is better, I think, than all but ten or fifteen American novels written in the postwar era—would suggest that Yates was onto something, at least where he and Connell were concerned.

I discovered the Bridge novels one day in 1991 at the Full Circle Bookstore in my hometown of Oklahoma City. Until then, I’d considered Yates’s novel The Easter Parade (1976) to be pretty much the last word on middle-class American families—I shared his pessimism on the subject, suffice it to say—though a decade would pass before I became Yates’s biographer and then, a little later, began writing my own account of family life, The Splendid Things We Planned. Early versions of my book focused almost entirely on my older brother, Scott, a self-destructive oddball who was, after all, the person most like me in the world—and this, I gradually learned, was very much to the point. The disaster of Scott’s life didn’t happen in a vacuum; we, as a family, were foremost in determining one another’s fates. I wonder if something of the sort occurred to me that day in 1991, when I sat in a little mall café near the bookstore and began reading Mrs. Bridge. It seems significant, now, that I read Connell’s book for the first time in the same sixteen-story building where my brother had once hung from the horizontal flagpole on the roof, an episode that would have made a perfect minichapter in one of the Bridge novels: the besotted young man from a well-to-do family, smirking (I imagine) at all the genteel lunching ladies on the sidewalk far below his dangling feet—another caper, another épater, but deftly portending the tragedy to come.

In other respects the Bridge family could hardly have been more different from my own—indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge were part of a generation that my parents (in particular) saw fit to rebel against. Fifty-five years ago, my paternal grandmother gave a welcoming soiree for my young mother, pigtailed and hugely pregnant, who took one look at the assembled hausfrauen of Vinita, Oklahoma, and sat down to watch Bonanza. Mrs. Bridge of Kansas City would have shared my grandmother’s bewilderment. Both women wanted terribly to be comme il faut, believing, as Mrs. Bridge puts it, that there are “two kinds of people in the world”—a notion that can be complicated in its ramifications. While it’s tempting to dismiss Mrs. Bridge as a benighted relic and nothing but, it’s Connell’s genius to create a character who is both utterly typical of her time and place and yet somehow uniquely decent, touching, and peculiar: For the main theme of these novels, beautifully sustained, is the chasm between our exotic inner lives and public facades. Witness the way Mr. Bridge admonishes his daughter Ruth for using the word shit—“We will have no such language in this house”—while being shaken, as ever, by her beauty, sensing “the strange darkness in her which he could feel also within himself.”

These feelings, needless to say, can never be expressed by nice people such as the Bridges, who remain largely alien to one another. As a grown woman, Ruth is bemused to learn by accident that her father, a lawyer, once did pro bono work for a Jewish acquaintance—despite his slight, provincial anti-Semitism. “You’re a strange person,” she tells him, confessing she doesn’t really know him at all—this to Mr. Bridge’s poignant dismay: “Your mother, your brother, your sister, and you yourself mean more to me than anything in the world . . .” He loves them too much, in other words, to mortify them with unseemly emotional things, and so he never tells his wife about the heart trouble that will suddenly kill him one day while he’s dictating a legal brief. This is comic—and, I repeat, Connell would have made fine comedy of my brother’s slapstick suicide attempt (if that’s what it was)—but on a rather cosmic scale: human folly viewed from the perspective of Flaubert’s “God in the universe,” paring his nails and smiling a little sadly.

The 117 chapters of Mrs. Bridge are mostly discrete, one from the other, yet characters and narrative threads recur in a nicely nuanced way, and the whole thing tends toward a dawning awareness of Mrs. Bridge’s desolation. Her children grow up and leave her, her husband dies, and she can’t think of any sound way to make the days pass. But I don’t want to depress you. Connell (contra Yates, who, I suspect, had a much bleaker childhood) saw the poetry of family life, too—those lovely, ordinary moments of communion with people you love without quite knowing why. One summer evening, for instance, the Bridges have a random chat about locusts (no less), until Mr. Bridge finds he can no longer concentrate on his newspaper: “He listened to his daughters and his wife and he observed his son, but he no longer understood what was being said; as he listened to their voices and to the seasonal music of the insects the problems which had troubled him during the day did not seem important, and he reflected that he had practically everything he ever wanted.”

Blake Bailey’s most recent book is The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait (Norton, 2014). He is working on a biography of Philip Roth.