Tidewater Review - February 2010

 

February Reviews
by
Anne Stinson

The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx
In the introduction to this compendium of hilarity, the editors wrote the following:
“When the publishers first suggested that his letters be put into a book, Groucho, a diffident man – well, fairly diffident – beat about no bushes. He wired back:
“Your letter received and promptly burned. I prefer not to have strangers prying into my mail. Would discuss this in detail, but my secretary has a date in five minutes – with me.”
Luckily for the rest of us, Groucho relented and made the world a richer place with a selection of correspondence between the witty, erudite comic and his equally talented passel of buddies, cohorts and the merely interested people who loved, appreciated and excoriated his humor. This reviewer laughed like a loon from beginning to end of the selections.
Incidentally, this isn’t a new book. It was printed in 1967, which only goes to show that older is often better. One of my waggish sons gave it to me for Christmas, and the door was scarcely closed on his departure when I absented myself for a romp through its pages. For lovers of Groucho’s wacky sense of fun, ask your librarian or, even better, your bookseller to find your own copy. It’s published by Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, and to make it easy, ask for ISBN-13-978-3606-1 or 3603-5. Even your bookshelf will giggle.
The chapters are categorized into letters relating to Movie Business, Private Life, Touching on Television, Groucho and other Men of Letters, Grouchy, Broadway and Hollywood, For Publication, Friends Abroad, The Faintly Political Scene and Short Shrift. Each bunch of mail is full of the writers’ love of words, love of family (Groucho adored his own children as well as those of his friends), high dudgeon and low, whether real or feigned, sly references to his background in vaudeville and observations in general about the follies of mankind.
There isn’t a dull epistle in the mailbag. My copy of the book is dog-eared to bulging with quotable quotes for dollops of wisdom, no matter how zany they appear in print.
Of course, Groucho’s list of friends spans a multitude of witty speakers and writers, many of them screenwriters, critics and actors, all of whom looked at the world askance.
“If there is very little correspondence between the brothers, it’s because they were not apart often, or for any considerable length of time,” the editors wrote. “Besides, Groucho is the one member of the family with a passion for letters.
“Chico’s writing was pretty much limited to the writing of checks, payable to card players who, he was convinced, were less skillful at games than himself. To prove that this was so, Chico spent most of his happy, carefree life – and money.
“As for dear, eternally boyish Harpo, his friends, like Groucho’s, were mostly writers. And yet Harpo liked to pretend, for comic effect, that he was completely illiterate. Shortly after our first meeting (I had been brought to Hollywood to help prepare a Marx Brothers movie script) Harpo asked me to tell him how to make a ‘J.’”
But enough about the funny brothers. This book celebrates the wacky wit of Groucho, never far off the mark, although the near misses, the author says, are part of history, noting, “Even Babe Ruth struck out more than once.”
In the chapter titled “Other Men of Letters,” Groucho writes to James Thurber, “I am going to be at the Westport Country Playhouse ... and I expect you and your wife (the lady who has fond memories of me singing ribald lyrics to her in a shabby beauty parlor in Westwood) to be my guests. If you can come and drag along E. B. White I could then die happy, knowing that I had encountered ... if only briefly ... the literary class of our time.” He signed the letter, “Your admirer and all around bootlicker, Groucho.”
To Goodman Ace, Groucho writes about television. “As you know, I am doing a new show which is precisely the same as the old show except that we have traded Mr. Fenneman for a sprightly young doll with oversized knockers who leaps around the stage with all the abandon of a young doe being pursued by an elderly banker.”
He signs most of his letters with delicious variety – “Yours until hell freezes over,” and “Love to you and that kid you’re living with, Groucho.” He is stingingly funny damning a play by Genet after its Broadway opening, musing, “I didn’t understand it, just as I didn’t understand ‘Krapp’s Last Tape.’ If you turn that title around you will have an idea of what I thought of that one.”
Prepare to arm yourself with tissues for tears of laughter and Ben Gay for the stitches in your side when you read this one. It’s a gem.

Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town by Susan Hand Setterly. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 240 pp. $21.95.
Like a host of same-minded young people in the early ’70s, new family Susan and her husband, sickened by the tumult of the ’60s, turned away from the material world with their infant son and settled in Downeast Maine. Their new house was an unfinished cabin with no electricity, no plumbing and no telephone. It was June 1971, and they were in the middle of a sixty-acre woodlot.
It’s no surprise that when her in-laws came to visit them that autumn, “on the lip of serious snow,” the reaction was less than enthusiastic. Susan’s mother-in-law draped her mink coat over a chair. Her father-in-law had brought his own bottle of gin and was refilling his glass “as if it contained oxygen and he had been blasted against his will to the moon.”
The marriage lasted long enough to add a baby sister to the family, but eventually the couple divorced. Susan, who had been raised in suburbia, stayed on, enchanted with the silence, the company of birds and other wildlife, the kindness of neighbors and the close-knit community of the nearby hamlet. She describes it 30 years later as “the everyday magic of our lives.”
From the beginning, the going was laborious, but they persevered, digging and hoeing the dirt, planting vegetables and toting water and firewood. They slept three-on-a mattress on the floor. Most of all, they walked in the woods, gathered mussels from the ocean’s rocky shore, earned a barely sustainable livelihood selling clams and mussels. Later, when the children were school age, Susan taught in the tiny local school, wrote five children’s books and essays for The Maine Times, Birders’ World, Audubon Magazine and Down East.
Nothing appears to have dimmed her love for the rural life, as she tells wonderful stories of saving the life of an injured raven, an orphan robin who helped raise another passel of baby robins, encounters with a moose and the wild turkeys outside her window and coyotes in her fields. Her great lesson from years of trading urban clutter for country solitude is to train oneself to look, really look, at the millions of lives around us, from springtails to June bugs, from boreal shrimp to harbor porpoises.”
Even the random disasters of nature capture her intense interest. She marvels at a huge dead pine at the edge of a field. It had been struck by lightning many, many years earlier. To heal itself from the third of its bark that seared and blasted off, the tree had grown new wood, startling white on both sides of the gash from high in its branches to the ground below.
Aside from the wonders she finds on her remote property, Shetterly’s writing is lyrical prose that unfolds in the mind like a painting. Her description of the detritus under the tree unfolds with phrases that linger like music - “The stuff the tree has been dropping for years: branches the size of ribs and tusks, wrinkled sheets of bark as tough as elephants’ knees...Pileated woodpeckers’ holes pit the trunk...my tree is braced between a cedar and a fir. Like nurses in end-of-life care, they hold it aloft.”
Superior writing and a place brought to life - her gifts take us into a retreat most of us will never experience. It’s beautifully done.