by Keith Botsford
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you.
Larkin’s infamous introduction to This Be the Verse still resonates with readers nearly three decades after he wrote it — not only for its coarseness, but for its blunt appraisal of the psychological and emotional legacy that every parent, inadvertently or otherwise, passes on to his or her children. It has made rich autobiographical fodder for veteran writer Keith Botsford, who has traced the root of his troubles past own mother to motherhood itself in this elusive roman-a-clef of four marriages and as many separations.
The novel opens with its most telling episode. Jim Mount, a Midwestern lawyer and The Mothers‘ central character, is trudging through a graveyard with his young son (introduced as “The Kid”) to pay respects to Jim’s Italian mother, Felicita (an ironic name, as she never found happiness in her lifetime). As they search somewhat ineptly for the headstone, Jim imagines that he can hear her scolding him for his incompetence and his lack of devotion. If he really loved her, she seems to whisper to him, he would have found her grave by now. His wayward older brother Tony (already the basis of an earlier novella, O Brother!) would have, were he still alive. This one-sided conversation intermingles with still more painful bouts of remembering: the death of Jim’s little daughter Rory, as well as Felicita’s perversely incestuous love for Tony.
The larger conceit is that Felicita has seemed to Jim a ghost of sorts since he was a boy, haunting him in the way that only parents’ transgressions can. The whole convoluted maternal dynamic has left its permanent mark on him, and these lingering issues and resentments will be manifest in his behavior toward women throughout his life, spawning not a few ghosts of their own.
A simple enough premise, but as you might note from my need for so many parenthetical explanations, the author complicates the scene to an unpleasant degree. The reader is bombarded from the outset with a furious succession of names, nicknames, dates, places and events, a lifetime of information rattled off at an auctioneer’s pace, an incomprehensible series of potential causes and effects. Some of these details will impact the story frrther on. Many, however, are superfluous, included as if to add weight and credibility to an intensely personal story. Instead they have the opposite effect and slow the narrative pace to a drag — not in the meandering, nostalgic way that Proust loses himself in the waves of apparently random thought that arrive just before slumber; rather with the daunting prospect of additional confusion as Botsford parades his half-disguised memories across the stage with little more than a vague anecdote to put each into its proper context.
Taken in conjunction with the anonymous and genderless narrator, a person with Dakota blood (an insignificant detail repeated frequently) who muses on having Jim as “my man” with The Kid as “my own,” the initial effort appears too great for such slight returns. The author has not shaped personal experience into an accessible narrative. He has written a refresher course for the reader already familiar with the details. It’s a mistake expected of novices, not seasoned wordsmiths, and it is hardly an auspicious beginning.
But starting a story that one has actually experienced firsthand is no simple task. Unlike pure fiction, the author must pare away a pre-existing tale to its essentials, and it is easy to make an insider argument why this or that might be included. Botsford gains a better sense of perspective in Lou, the second chapter, and it is then that this sluggish mass of bit parts and incidental history begins to be streamlined and build momentum.
Lou is the first of Jim’s women in adulthood. Married young, unable to produce children, she holds her infertility and ineffective quack remedies over Jim’s head as if to blame him for her natural troubles. Then the first child comes, then another, and soon Jim is made to feel guilty for her fecundity. As a means of release, Jim spirits away the narrator, a woman we have since come to know as the loyal peripheral friend and childhood sweetheart Aissa Knoblauch, to Mexico, where he succeeds in temporarily booting his self-esteem at her expense. Later, the marriage devolves into farce as Lou, never especially stable to begin with, invites the “part-time poet” Liam Brady to live with them, flaunting her infidelity while asking Jim to maintain his dignity. The end is an acrimonious one.
The following stories are more or less variations on this theme. Next comes Maria, the blue-collar nymphette who Jim, having met with some financial gain, impresses with flashy cars and a thick billfold. In return, she revitalises something in him. They marry and she prepares for a life of relative simplicity, the one she knew growing up, but Jim is unable to see past himself and his own confused neediness. He plagues her with his volatile emotions and possessiveness, practically forcing her to leave him abruptly for another man. Then there is Natasha, subject of the briefest chapter. She attempts to straighten out Jim’s life of loose ends, but returns to her husband following an operation to remove a cancerous tumor. Finally, there is the Frenchwoman, Francine. Alluringly unpredictable and impenetrably cool, she is also several years younger than Jim. She married him on impulse, but ultimately regrets the decision: married life doesn’t suit her, and Jim’s foremost desire is, simply and selfishly, companionship in his old age.
Perhaps the best prefatory quote for The Mothers should come from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.” Botsford’s premise that women inevitably change when they become mothers is fair, and often true enough. And their influence on their children can be as negative as it is nurturing. Beyond this, however, it is painfully evident that Jim’s trouble does not stem solely from the change that his partners undergo when they have children. It is because Jim stubbornly does not. Whereas they often see parenthood — motherhood in particular — as a rite of passage, he sees it as a betrayal.
In spite of his residual problems with his own mother, this profound lack of self-awareness and maturity makes it a feat to conjure even the least bit of sympathy for Jim. Even during Aissa’s epilogue, he resembles a pitiable figure who has come through to the end of life none the wiser. It is equally difficult to imagine why Aissa fancies him after so many tumultuous decades, during many of which she was no more than a footnote to Jim’s life. Is it because she never became a parent herself — like attracting like, in other words?
The device of using a woman narrator to tell a story of this nature is a clever one, but at times it seems as if the author is hiding behind a cardboard cut-out of a woman to appear objectively distanced from the book. The disguise fails to conceal when the descriptions fall flat. “At first I thought it was a crazy thing to say, then I thought: Jim’s sexually charged, he gives off heat, and many women, knowing the risk they were taking, can’t help themselves,” is a prime example. A mention of Jims “coppery, muscled, beautiful arms” also springs to mind, as does the reference to “creamy breasts,” notwithstanding the loaded alternate reading of such a description. The manipulation that irrevocably exposes him is Aissa’s rather hasty aside that Jim “did not want [the children] included” in the story, when they are in fact so central to it. What would The Mothers be without their children? Or is this because Jim could never rate his children’s importance above his own?
Via this intermediary narrator Botsford is able to draw some of the personal out into the general. “That’s the way Nature was, big and round, fecund and rotting, superfluous, over-abundant — more than you could possibly need,” for example, is one of the wry descriptive highlights, recalling Robert Penn Warren’s breathless, revelatory writing in All the King’s Men. And the assertion that “no emotion was less dignified than jealousy. Jealousy was King of Detail” is reminiscent of the casual, aphoristic insight of Botsford’s sometime collaborator, Saul Bellow. He appears in The Mothers as Milo Frankel — a return of favors, perhaps, as Botsford had a cameo as Pierre Thaxter in Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Humboldt’s Gift.
In a way, the whole of the book is like this. Although Jim and the narrator point the occasional finger at motherhood as the time when in each of these relationships began to sour, it is hard to see exactly why. With the smaller individual ideas such as nature and jealousy, further explanation continually fails to support them, and they are left to free-float among the rest of the text, as if the author couldn’t spare the effort to draw them out in more detail, or even just forgot in his haste to record more injustices. It would have been better if they had not been included at all. There are also repetitions of pet phrases that could have benefited from closer editing. Both life and the sea “taketh away.” And two times America is described as being between “utopia and discontent.” The peak of The Mothers is Aissa’s account, albeit supposedly second-hand, of the awkward, stinking, drunken sex between Jim and Lou in a cheap hotel room. It is pathetic, raunchy and comical, but exceptionally poignant.
I am of the firm opinion that Botsford and his work deserve to be better known among readers everywhere, but I do not think The Mothers is his strongest effort. Likely echoing the author’s own intention, Aissa says early in the book, “That’s what I’m for, maybe: to write them out of his head,” which would put this novel in the realm of catharsis, or a portrait of the artist as an old man. But Botsford has been too sparing in the subtleties. If it is indeed such a portrait, the canvas he has presented to us resembles a Pollack more than a Rembrandt.