Stephen McCauley

The Man of the House (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, March 1996)

Stephen McCauley has written another delightful comedy of manners. This one is set in Cambridge, and stars a charming, rueful, funny, sad, gay man called Clyde, who, at thirty-five, is drifting through life, spending his days visiting friends, obsessing about his unresolved relationship with his father, reading celebrity bios, and hoping that his ex-lover, Gordon, will come back to him so he can finally forget about him and move on. He teaches literature at The Learning Place, a center for adult education in Cambridge, where the students are far more interested in discussing their own lives than the books they are supposed to be reading. Even the names of the novels Clyde is trying to teach — Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations — reflect the restless, unresolved quality of his life.

His mother has died, and his father has retreated to furious silence in the basement of the New Hampshire condo home of Clyde’s divorced sister, who is compiling a cookbook based on their mother’s favorite recipes — Tuna Cookies, No-Bake Meatloaf and Wondercake. The novel glides along on the flow of Clyde’s thought, punctuated by devastatingly funny portraits of local people and places, and occasional moments of real, rending moments of sadness and truth.

“I suppose I read so many biographies because I was trying to understand how people stumbled through their days and their failures and spun their miseries and despair into great art or pathbreaking science or profound enlightenment.”

His life — “becalmed in the waters of waiting” —  begins to change when an old friend, Louise, arrives to spend a year on a grant from a unnamed women’s college that sounds very much like Radcliffe. Louise is a writer with a twelve year old son of mysterious paternity, and an adorable dog named Otis. To say any more would be unkind, because the plot unravels in such graceful curves, like the perfect peel of a bright yellow lemon curling down the table of a Dutch still life painting, with the light just right. Nor will I speculate on the identities of the Cambridge writers and other personalities so brilliantly and bitingly portrayed; for Bostonians, some of the fun of the book will be trying to figure out who they really are. But in the hope of being included in his next novel, I invited Stephen McCauley to a delicious lunch at my house in Cambridge, to talk about The Man of the House.

Rebecca Nemser: The narrator of the book is so insecure — so charming, but so insecure. But you — you’ve written three books. Both The Object of My Affections (1987) and The Easy Way Out (1992) were bestsellers, and The Man of the House seems destined for success; you’ve already gotten great reviews. You’re handsome and healthy, you have lots of friends, a wonderful boyfriend, and even an adorable little lapdog like the one in the book. So is shy, helpless, low self-esteem Clyde a totally made-up person, or can that possibly be the way you really feel?

Stephen McCauley: That’s me. It’s exaggerated, but it’s me. Except that, however deep my insecurities are, I do write.

R: How do you begin?

SM: I try to figure out what the ending is. I start with some sense of where I want to end up, psychologically and emotionally, and try to get there. There’s no real story, and no real plot, so knowing when to end it poses difficulties for me. In the end, Clyde has decided to move on and accept whatever’s been holding him back — his relationship with his father.

R: You always call him “…Dad.”  Dot dot dot Dad.

SM: The book came out of powerful feelings about an unresolved relationship with my own father, but it’s not autobiographical.

R: All the characters seem to be waiting for something to happen.

SM: Except Louise.  She’s living her life, and she has been all along. She has that core of passion for her writing. Everything else circles around it. She has something at the center of her life, and it’s guiding her.

R: Is writing the center for you?

SM: I something worry that my life is too centered around writing. Ultimately everything I do is about writing — either agonizing about writing or about not writing. I agonize over my books. It sounds conversational and easy, but it really takes a lot of struggle.

R: I loved the ending, on a beach in Provincetown — it was like a Nan Goldin photograph.

SM: Open space and light, after all those cramped attic rooms.

R: And Louise makes up a happy ending. She turns it into a story.

SM: Redemption through some of kind of transformation of one’s own experience! That’s  why we all write — to make it all right in the end. (Pause, then, with a charming, sad, tender, rueful smile) If we only could…

Some of my favorite passages from Stephen McCauley’s new novel, The Man of the House:

On Cambridge: “The university owned mind-boggling amounts of real estate and was slowly but surely turning the city into Harvard World, a beautifully tended theme park designed around an academic motif…It was only a matter of time before they installed a monorail and a water slide.”

On New Hampshire: “This was a world of vast parking lots connected to one another by roads that, due to congestion, often looked like vast parking lots. Every motel, restaurant, pet shop, and cinema was part of a national chain, giving the whole area a surreal atmosphere of being everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. Once in a great while, you’d come upon a shabby luncheonette or a dimly lit variety store, establishments that might as well have been archaelogoical finds from some ancient lost culture.”

On the Hyatt Regency Hotel: “Architecturally, the lobby of the Hyatt was an amalgam of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Las Vegas: a brick atrium lush with exotic plants and flowering trees and coruscating with fountains, glass elevators, lasers, and, for good measure, a rotating cocktail lounge pasted on the top floor. I loved stepping iinto the bustle of the place with its extravagently costumed employees and grotesquely overdone floral arrangements and that peculairly flattering lighting that made everyone from chambermaids to the alchohol-flushed guests look like extras in a credit card commerical.”

On Clyde’s mother: “She was Italian, second-generation but still with a flair for grand gestures and big, emotional outbursts that I saw as a confused blend of opera, papal edicts, and devotion to those gorgeous Italian saints, bloodied and beatific. More or less everything made her weep: commericials, greeting cards, thunderstorms, all music — from the most sacred to the most insipidly profane…A few minutes after every phone conversation I’d ever had with her, she’d called back to add some irrelevant bit of news, as if she just couldn’t stand the finality of hanging up. It plagued me to think how miserable she must be with the finality of death.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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