Tidewater Review - November 2011

Last Proud Gallop

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

This month’s books represent the sort of grab bag you’d find in a book store or at the library – a bit of flavor for any taste. Our selections include a novel set in the Roaring Twenties; the new paperback version of the beloved book about the bond between man and dog; and a memoir based on an indomitable Jewish grandmother.
Why get in a rut and confine your choices to cookbooks or bodice ripper romance novels? Variety, dear readers, is the bologna and caviar of life.
Thus, you’re invited to check out some brief reviews of several books read in the gap between consumption and publication. Because your critic is basically kind at heart, three really dreadful books will not be mentioned.

Last Proud Gallop by Gerald Sweeney. Published in 2006, Bootlocker, Inc. 260 pages. $16.95.
Sweeney’s first published novel takes place in the decade that followed World War I, the event that shattered Europe but also put Victorian formality on the shelf. Desperate frivolity marked the 1920s, an attempt to erase the shock of muddy trench fighting, incompetent military leadership, death and destruction in huge doses.
To an older generation, the flappers and gigolos seemed determined to discard prudery in favor of crudity. Young women bobbed their hair, rolled down their stockings and shortened their frocks. Young men drove fast cars, behaved recklessly and were openly promiscuous. Both sexes smoked, cursed and drank illegal whiskey to excess.
For the wealthy young people of Manhattan and Long Island, life was one endless party. The big “cottages” built a generation earlier were the playgrounds for the rich scions of the old families. Ballrooms now were filled with the sassy, suggestive rhythms of jazz until dawn. Thundering hoofs heralded the return of polo for afternoons that culminated in cocktails at the country clubs. Indolence and pleasure-seeking replaced the stress of the war years.
Sweeney is now best known as the author of The Columbiad series, the saga of a family of Irish immigrants. His collection of seven volumes, four of them already in print, traces the progress of seven generations as they changed with the times, just as the country grew and matured.
Last Proud Gallop was written in the 1960s at the beginning of Sweeney’s career and then tucked away for 50 years before publication. Despite the passage of time, the author’s style is already formed in this early work. His gift includes keen observation of the habits and mores of its period and social milieu. The echo of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose is unmistakable, and Sweeney confesses that he was inspired to write the book at a time when he was in thrall to the work of that popular chronicler of The Lost Generation.
Indeed, the plot of the debut novel gives away the author’s debt to Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the frenzied 1920s. The stodgy, formal behavior of “the right people” loosened as the ladies discarded their corsets to dance the Charleston. The lads who had gone from college graduation directly to the hell of combat in France let off steam with gay abandon. Withal, the monied class retained shards of their noblesse oblige – honor still counted, one still dressed for dinner, kept a stable for their polo ponies and ignored Prohibition.
The main female character in this ultimately tragic tale (the Fitzgerald pattern again) is a young man’s fantasy – the incorrigible woman, ravishingly beautiful and blatantly promiscuous. She’s the spider that traps good men and bad men in her web.
The story evokes more heat than can be dispelled by dancing in the pavilion by the lake or watching the sun rise from the ocean through damp fog. The world seems to be a big party scene with heartbreaks and passion on the menu.
Last Proud Gallop is exactly what its title defines. I loved it!

Ditto for the man and the dog book.
I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson. Now in paperback. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 264 pp., $13.95.
I read this book on a shady deck at Nags Head in late August, just a week before Hurricane Irene spoiled the end of summer, and it was the perfect choice for a relaxing, non-brain-scrambling, somnolent read. No effort demanded further than an amused chuckle from time to time.
In the vein of that lazy lull, I shamelessly copy the publisher’s precis, much more brilliant than my fuzzy brain could concoct under the circumstance:
“For Paul Gustavson, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has had a stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his over-achieving brother invested his parents’ money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State Bar, a steady line of cocktails, and Stella. Beautiful, blonde, long-legged Stella who always has a witty retort or a brilliant piece of advice, and she only wets herself once in a while.”
That last factoid is what caught my attention. You expected maybe I should read War and Peace on my vacation?
Paul and Stella have each other. That’s a very comforting arrangement, since Paul doesn’t attract many friends. The guys at the bar are not exactly bright company, but their value is that they leave Paul pretty much alone to brood over his sad sack life.
Stella is always at the door to greet Paul. She’s a welcome companion when he stumbles home after the bar closes. She’s a charmer with few faults; she forgets where he’s been and if he’s not home she assumes he’s dead. His arrival is always a miracle to Stella, so she’s overjoyed to see him.
That’s a good thing, because with all his other worries, plus a constantly renewed hangover, things could get really miserable.
With so affable a friend and the blur of liquor to mask the pain of life, all’s well that ends well for Paul. Well, almost all’s well. Good stuff happens with the sad stuff. Even Stella thinks that’s fair.
One escaped tear is permitted for this delightful book. Unlimited chortles are the rule. This would be a great Christmas book for a special friend, as enjoyable in drear January as it was in August.

And another giggle for the stocking stuffer:
The Smartest Woman I Know by Ilene Beckerman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 99 pp. $15.95.
I blush when I write this, but Ilene Beckerman’s memoir of growing up with her Jewish grandmother illustrates an absolute fact. Grandmothers are priceless. Needless to say, I am one of them and, like Beckerman’s grandmother Ettie Goldberg, I hope I will be quoted by my grandchildren, yea, unto their grandchildren. And always with love.
Ettie rarely complained, and then only to God. For example, Beckerman recalls every word of Ettie’s mumbling aloud, “You got a minute, God? I’m not really complaining, but it says in the Talmud that a man has 613 mitzvahs to do but a woman only has 3. So how come I am busy from the minute I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night, and Mr. Goldberg, who has 613 mitzvahs to do, has enough time to go upstairs at four o’clock every afternoon and take a nap?”
Ettie talks to God several times a day, her words often accompanied in the text by drawings of the diminutive (4’11”) lady with her photograph on top. Many more drawings decorate the pages, including Ettie’s words of wisdom to her two granddaughters in residence. Each pearl of advice from someone of note is usually followed by Ettie’s “She’s Jewish, you know.”
Nobody knows, Beckerman writes, how the Goldbergs managed to move from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to Madison Avenue between 64th and 65th streets. As Beckerman tells it, the odyssey from a pickle, a bialy and a two-cents plain to a ritzy address for their candy shop came about after a struggle to save every possible penny. They bought the building with an apartment over the store, which at first was a candy store with postcards, ink, paper clips and various low-priced knickknacks. As the business began to grow and prosper, they changed the name to Madison Stationers.
Most of their customers were not Jewish. Ettie shared her opinions with a broader base than God and granddaughters. Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR’s mother, stopped in to visit Ettie from time to time. Asked what they had in common, Ettie said, “We both have sons so we both worry.”
One day the glamorous Marlene Dietrich came into the store to buy cigarettes and was waited on by Mr. Goldberg. He praised her, said he had seen every one of her movies and she had brought great pleasure into his life. When Dietrich left, Mr. Goldberg said to Ettie, “What a thrill! To think that I just waited on Katharine Hepburn!” Ettie murmured, “God, should I tell him?”
After six years with Ettie and Mr. Goldberg, Beckerman finished high school and was off to college. Ettie made up her mind on the choice of Ilene’s school. It had to be in Boston, she said, because that’s where she would meet students who were studying to be doctors and lawyers. “Pick one!” she said. Case closed. Ettie’s word was law.
When Ettie was dying in her nineties, Mr. Goldberg knelt by her bed and whispered to her, “You know, Mrs. Goldberg, I could have done worse.”
Among Beckerman’s previous books about Ettie’s pearls of wisdom, Praise for the Mother of the Bride and What We Do for Love, her Love, Loss and What I Wore has been reviewed as “This small gem, worthy of a Tiffany box.”
That “small gem” inspired Nora and Delia Ephron to adapt it for the Off Broadway stage. It is still running two years later.
The Smartest Woman I Know is a little book with a lot of laughter and affection. Don’t pass it by.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.