The opening pages of Mary Gordon’s new novel, Payback, simply do not read like a Mary Gordon novel. Where are the Italian cafés and brainy bourgeois couples we met in The Love of My Youth (2011)? The fierce mother and daughter debating hunger strikes and Irish nationalism in Pearl (2005)? Or passages such as this from 2017’s There Your Heart Lies: “There was a particular kind of Catholicism that was uniquely American. They combined the worst prejudices of the worst Americans with the worst of being Catholic.”
Gordon’s latest, instead, opens somewhere in Arizona, on an afternoon in February 2018. The “sun is strong,” and women of a certain age—with nails “painted in various shades of opulence”—gather for “water aerobics, a manicure, a pedicure, then lunch.” They settle in to watch their favorite tabloid TV show, hosted by the righteous and wrathful Quin Archer. Armed with “orange lipstick” and lots of insults, Archer is on a weekly hunt for public retribution. “When she goes after someone,” one fan comments, “I just feel good about things.”
Just when you think Mary Gordon has written a straight up, Trump-era pop-culture satire, she brings us back to more familiar Gordonian turf: Rhode Island’s Lydia Farnsworth School for Girls, 1972. The kind of place where students say things such as “Just putting in my time at this genteel prison” and “I’ll be spending a lot of time on dressage next year.” There are debates about Vietnam, pop art, liberals and conservatives. The teachers are young and passionate, particularly Agnes Vaughan, a contemplative Brown graduate with a fiancé off on an “archaeological dig in Iraq.” Agnes is warned, “New teachers often get entangled (in students’ lives) in ways that have unfortunate consequences.” Yet Agnes still sets up a trip to Manhattan for two particularly precocious students to see William F. Buckley and Arthur Schlesinger discuss Picasso’s Guernica. The trip takes a terrible turn, and worsens when Agnes gets involved, prompting a singularly awful crisis that will haunt all parties for the next fifty years. When we return to Agnes in 2018, she is still guilt-stricken, but also thoughtful, conscientious—and worried about America. Donald Trump is never named in Payback, but when some mundane, obscene public spat develops, Agnes thinks, “Everyone knows it is because of the president. He has poisoned the air; he has darkened the sky.”
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