From “Pamela Moore + 40” by Robert Nedelkoff
The Baffler Magazine , Issue 10, 1997

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Moore’s two novels which were never published in hardcover in America – Diana and The Exile of Suzy-Q – are her weakest and may be dealt with briefly.  Diana is an ambitious book, dealing with a dozen characters and following three plot lines, and concerns a situation of considerable sociological interest: the transition of St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan from a Polish and Ukrainian working-class neighborhood to a playground of the (usually would-be) Beats.  Unfortunately, one of the plot lines is a sappy rewrite of Romeo And Juliet via West Side Story (hence the book’s UK title, East Side Story) and the other two subplots, though less sentimental, are not handled convincingly.  A trio of gay men living in the same building as the title character are treated more in the “sterile, noncreative” stereotype of the time than in the manner of Chocolates.  The descriptive passages are overwritten and contrast unfavorably with the spare prose of Pamela’s first novel.

Suzy-Q is Pamela’s longest and flimsiest book; its back-cover copy cites Lolita, and like that novel Suzy-Q has a pubescent heroine, descriptions of the wide-open spaces of the West, and a sleazy Hollywood character or two.  The novel, like Nabokov’s, also begins by making the reader believe a comic romp is in the offing, and ends by describing a homicide and the imprisonment of the heroine’s would-be lover, while the heroine now saddened and scarred.  The comparisons, unfortunately, end there.  Pamela’s characters are hopelessly stereotyped, her plot jumbled and melodramatic.  While the intentional humor falls flat, the serious passages, seemingly concocted by stirring together fragments of Steinbeck, Lawrence, and Graham Greene, are unintentionally ludicrous.  The descriptions of horses and the landscape are occasionally well written, but such moments are rare.  Both Diana and Suzy-Q conclude with ineptly handled death scenes; in Pamela Moore’s final novel she moved on to the subject of spiritual death and was able to come much closer to echoing the tragic spirit of Lolita.

Any perceptive reviewer of The Horsy Set in 1963 — had one existed — would have been obliged to point out that it had more in common, at least formally, with Francoise Sagan’s books than did Chocolates For Breakfast.  Unlike Pamela Moore’s other novels, The Horsy Set is more of a recit than a roman, a first-person narrative detailing some traumatic experience which has altered the central character’s perception of self and world.  Again, the book is set in 1953, and again the protagonist, Brenda Palmer, neee Brenda Baroszy, is troubled by all the usual symptoms of incipient existentialism: Kierkegaard’s “fear and trembling” and Sartre’s “nausea.”  Although the opening pages of the book — which were no doubt the basis on which Simon & Schuster took it — faithfully echo The Catcher In The Rye‘s Lardneresque beginning, the book’s tone after them more and more resembles that of Jim Thompson’s most furious paperback originals, or, more precisely, a Thompson who had perused Blanchot’s Le Tres-Haut and Andre Baillon as well as Swift and Richard Wright. Salinger’s Gnostic theme of the inherent iniquity of the adult world is certainly present in Pamela’s last book, but the glorification of the child, especially the girl-child, that suffuses Catcher and “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” is quite absent.

We learn that Brenda, like Pamela’s other heroines, has really had no childhood and never seen her father, who, according to her mother, was a bisexual Gypsy circus performer.  From her eighth birthday, Brenda has been trained under the meticulous auspices of her mother, an ex-showgirl married to an investment banker, toward the goal of making the Olympic equestrian team.  As the book opens, Brenda has just gotten her only A in high school, for a senior term paper titled “Training The Horse Trains The Rider.”  Again the heroine is dating yet another ineffectual Ivy League dropout, this one an ex-Harvard mama’s boy, Larry Harfield, who’s breaking into the world of off-Broadway theater by backing productions, all the while working (he assures Brenda) on a play all about her.  For Brenda, this promise compensates for Larry’s extracurricular sexual activity that, he insists, has been brought on by her unwillingness to shed her virginity — a determination Brenda has announced on page two. Sexuality in The Horsy Set is not all soft lights and gentle music as it had been in Chocolates, nor does it conform to the phrase, seemingly alluding to Danae’s encounter with Zeus — “she was open to the world, and the sun entered through her thighs” — employed in Suzy-Q. Pamela’s new metaphor for sexuality, reiterated constantly through the book, reflects considerable distaste:

I mean there’s a whole area of life that’s muddy to me no matter how much I hear or read about it.  So sometimes I listen to people and I don’t understand them and I know they’re talking from that mud; they’re talking about how it feels and tastes and smells, and I get dizzy thinking I’d know just what was going on if only I took one little step and sank into that sea of mud with them, because they’re all in it together.

The book’s early chapters describe a group of affluent couples in Westchester County, New York, whose lives revolve around the Silver Birch Stables.  The wives, like mares around a steed, all sleep with Guy, the grizzled, amoral ex-cowboy riding master, and the husbands all play it cool.  Brenda’s problem is that her mother isn’t bothering to put up a front to her stepfather, and the latter is about to storm out and get a divorce.

As the book’s narrative develops, Brenda gets into a tiff with Larry over her interest in Lieutenant Richard Kar, a West Point cadet who, the Korean War just over, has been sent to the stable to train for the Olympic trials.  Brenda and her Harvard man then go to the Richard the Lionhearted bar, a Manhattan hangout for the kind of people who populated Chocolates. There, she meets Patsy, to whom she takes a liking – partly because the latter “look[s] too independent to be from a cloistered school like Wellesley or Smith,” partly because the two look like each other.  The overtones of narcissistic lesbianism, however, do not culminate in a happy bedding as in some recent novels, but in a cataclysm harsher in some ways than that of the film Single White Female.

At the bar, Patsy proposes that everybody go back to her place for a party.  Those invited include Brenda and Larry, Brenda’s best friend Chrissy, and Chrissy’s date, Lt. Kar, who has meticulously tossed back ten shots of scotch at the bar – each one for a classmate killed in Korea.  He’s a cad, but he proceeds like the rest to Patsy’s apartment, which is not furnished in standard Radcliffe alum: it has black-and-white tile flooring, “rosy” fluorescent lights, and mirrors. This is because Patsy is a $500-a-night call girl. (The figure is still a considerable one nowadays, but in 1953 dollars this sum would be improbable unless Patsy’s clientele consisted of King Farouk and the leading figures in Palm Beach and Newport.)  What followes, given Patsy’s fondness for giving Harvard men a $400 discount, is only logical:

“But listen-” [Patsy’s] hand now gripping my shoulder — “don’t you be scared about Larry. He’s an artist and a real man. He’s a hundred times better man, just man, than all those guys out there.  And believe me, I know.”
I turned to ice, staring at her sentimental eyes; I froze with a hate I couldn’t control and she felt it. I didn’t move but she pulled her hand off my should and her face twisted.
“Oh, God,” she moaned.
I wanted to hit her and I wanted to cry and I wanted to get out of there, and sixteen things that I should have said came to my lips but died there…

In the society in which they live, Brenda and Patsy are both property, the difference being that Patsy rents herself, while Brenda sells herself as a life estate. They are both obliged to see each other not as people who can share something in common, but as competitive adjuncts of Larry’s whims.

What Brenda does next, less than an hour after being addressed as “the hundred-proof virgin” at the Richard the Lionhearted Bar, is to drag Larry into the call-girl’s bedroom and lose her virginity – to enter the metaphorical sea of mud. And abruptly a metaphor describing another kind of sea arises as Brenda, now speaking as Betty Baroszy and addressing the last of Pamela Moore’s absent fathers, says:

Yes, [Palmer] adopted me because he’s a sentimental bastard, but I didn’t care, all the while I was waiting for you to grow up so I would find you, Father. Now I’m a woman and I’ll stay with you forever, won’t I, Father? Yes, never leave you, never sail backwards across the crimson sea; it’s over now Father, I murdered my childhood before she could murder me, I did it Father and now you will love me forever and never shall I return across that crimson bloody sea.

Following these lines on the most disturbing of all Pamela’s pages, her characters abandon the crimson sea for one ugly roll in “the mud” after another.  Brenda’s subsequent encounters with Larry leave her and him unsatisfied; he dismisses her as a “frigid virgin.”  Brenda’s mother counsel’s marriage. Lt. Kar waits in the wings, and for Brenda’s eighteenth birthday takes her back to the Lionhearted bar, where Larry and Patsy are dallying. In the best tradition of the American military, the officer then a) gets into a shouting match with Larry; b) falsely asserts that he has slept with Brenda; c) slugs Larry; d) takes Brenda back to the stable and, in the mud, “shows” her what a “real man” is “all about.”  The book ends with Guy the riding-master fleeing Westchester; the “horsy set” screaming each other’s most gossiped-over “secrets;” Brenda ditching her riding career; and Lt. Kar sabotaging his last ride in competition so that the two of them can go off to a base in Germany.  The acid tone Pamela takes might indicate that, like Chocolates, this ending is not to be taken seriously, but still her character is unable to conceive of the future apart from being a component of a man’s life.

Had Pamela lived and continued writing, perhaps she would ultimately have proven incapable of serious literature and would have finished her career composing smart but schlocky bestsellers, stylish counterparts of Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins. But her work frequently manifests a fairly sophisticated awareness of her society and its workings, whether satirically or melodramatically expressed, that is absent from the other two writers.  This awareness gives her first and last books what lasting value they have.  Pamela’s writing may have been polished, but still it was the work of a woman who either could not or, to some extent, was not allowed to mature as a writer; a woman desperately in need of the kind of social changes which the feminist movement brought into being over the years that followed. From a purely clinical perspective, and given Chocolates‘ description of bipolar depression and how The Horsy Set in its most frantic pages epitomizes a classic “mixed state,” it is important to remember that those years also saw the introduction of the first, rather ineffective, medications for depression. Her chronicles of an America still with us in some ways, and in others as distant as the world of Charlemagne, deserve serious critical examination and perhaps republication.

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2 Responses

  1. Kevin K

    That sounds right! Sorry we didn’t catch that before the revised version of this article (which was included with the reissue) went to press.

  2. Dan Visel

    Minor correction: in The Horsy Set, the protagonist is born “Betsy Baroszy” and then becomes “Brenda Stilwall” – “Palmer” is her stepfather’s given name.