Thursday, January 5, 2017

Vindictive Book Review: Rockville Pike

A Fair Trade Book, Albeit About a Town Where I'm Not Sure That Fairness Ever Existed

Title: Rockville Pike

Author: Susan Coll

Author's web page:

Date: 2005

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 0-7432-4477-X

Length: 319 pages

Quote: “Rockville Pike...had once been a dusty Indian trail. It was later packed with ten-inch-deep flint rock in a process known as ‘piking.’ The Great Road, as it was called...was plagued by traffic problems even back...when James Polk and Andrew Jack­son were among the travelers.”

Disclaimer: It is theoretically possible that an honest and decent business has been set up in Rockville, Maryland, at some time since I've been there. I wouldn't know. This book exploits a stereotype...and when I was there the stereotype was solidly based in reality, and wasn't funny.

When the Pike required a more specific name, it was named for the sleepy little town at the head of Rock Creek, which had rather lackadaisically been designated the seat of Montgomery County...probably for its central location. In the nineteenth century Rockville, like the rest of Montgomery County, was a section of farms surrounding a tavern and a post office. (The post office was already losing mail, or letting mail be tampered with, in the 1850s when ex-slave Ann Maria Weems was waiting for letters.) As Washington began to sprawl in the mid-twentieth century, Rockville “developed” into a rather remote and downscale suburb. At exactly what point it became “The Devil’s Town,” I’ve never been able to determine; researchers like the ones who helped Susan Coll with Rockville Pike wouldn’t have such information.

Let’s just say that in the 1980s, when “Bob Levey’s Washington” column ridiculed people who wanted to identify “White Flint” or “North Bethesda” as a separate community, Levey may have believed that they were evading an image problem based on relatively low property values, power outages, and sporadic bus service. Those things were part of Rockville’s image, but there was more to it than that. "Everyone in town wants to bring you down" was more than the usual teen-romance pop lyric.

Ask any young person who’d hoarded a few minimum-wage paychecks to buy anything—a car, a stereo, a piece of furniture—at any of Rockville’s discount stores. First of all they’d say the store personnel had been churlish. (Coll, page 206: “One could only guess that a person walking around with a cache of hundred-dollar bills had either come from the race­track or had just sold a kilo of crack cocaine.” Or cashed a paycheck at a liquor store because the person wasn't earning enough to have a bank account...I remember it well.) 

Then, whatever it was, even if it was the pair of stockings I once bought on the allegedly upscale White Flint Mall, it fell apart before the purchaser expected to have had it long enough to give it a rating. Or worse. (Coll, page 205: “It was a....chandelier...retailing for about $3,000. We had a reproduction at the store that we sold for about $250. It was a China Electrical Corp. special and it looked almost exactly the same, although the quality of the crystal, not to mention the wiring, left much to be desired.” And did it, like the tape player I once bought at a mad one-day sale at a Rockville store, tend to catch fire?)

And so it’s possible to say that the protagonist of Rockville Pike is altogether believable, at the same time that it’s believable that she bears no resemblance to any specific individual living or dead. Coll’s comic anti-heroine, Jane Kramer, is the sort of idiot narrator for which Sue Townsend and Helen Fielding are famous...and her real-life inspiration is: the Rockville stereotype. Or, at least, the one of several Rockville stereotypes whose awfulness can be made funny. Kramer’s Discount Furniture Depot sells garbage, and Jane knows it, but all she can be expected to do about it is whine ineffectually to her father-in-law that maybe if they sold better furniture they might not be losing so much money. ("Kramer's Discount Furniture Depot," yes. Washingtonians know it's not Kramerbooks, which was actually a relatively decent downtown D.C. store owned by a Rockville man, and they know it's not Marlo--Maryland's Lowest Discounts Furniture--but it has deliciously familiar echoes of both.)

The only two of her son’s school friends whose names Jane remembers are part of the drug business that really made Rockville infamous. The Kramers accept that this is part of their community. Jane’s son admittedly looks like one of the Satanists who cinched the title of "the Devil's town" for Rockville, but Jane thinks he’s just a music student who’s into the Goth look...not that he tells her everything; Jane hopes he’s sober. Jane doesn’t get out much. A failed writer, she’s dug herself so deeply into the “housewife” role, despite her mediocre sales and office work at Kramer’s, that she doesn’t feel able to talk to people and make friends any more. Jane and her family are about as badly victimized by characters who embody the stronger stereotypes of Rockville as anyone else is. We can feel sorry for them.

The front cover identifies Rockville Pike as a comedy, and Coll delivers; although her material could easily get serious, as in The Watsons Go to Birmingham, it stays light and whimsical even when Jane passes out naked on a divorced male acquaintance’s bed. Given every opportunity to mess with Jane’s body, the sleazy  guy prefers to mess with her mind, but is too polluted himself to do this in worse than a fumbling, funny way.

One of the main comic motifs in this book is that Jane is convinced her husband is cheating, and even tries to cheat on him to pay him back. My opinion is that this motif has been beaten to death in fiction; all possible adultery stories have been beaten to death, and no new adultery story can be either funny or moving. We need a 500-year moratorium on adultery in comic fiction. Fortunately, in Rockville Pike the adultery story takes second position to the primary comic motif, which is how Jane, frantically rationalizing her cheating other people in business, succeeds in cheating herself. Though not too subtle for any reader likely to recognize the names of Presidents Polk and Jackson, the comic study of the Kramers’ dishonesty is not too overt to be funny either. It is right on.

I put off reading this novel for years because I was afraid it would have a good strong sense of place. It has. Reading it gives me the feeling, not merely of being back in some part of Montgomery County’s look-alike sprawl—strangers can hardly tell downtown Rockville from downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, or Gaithersburg by looking—but of being specifically in Rockville. All Giant Food stores have many points of resemblance, but I know it’s that Giant, and although they didn’t pay Coll to print the name another scene definitely takes place in G Street Fabrics, and on and on. And frankly, although Washington’s other downscale suburbs have their appeal, I didn’t want to imagine myself in Rockville. 

Finally, on one cold damp winter day, I opened the book and was pleasantly surprised by the way it affected my mood. The weather here on the far end of Virginia was foul but at least, I thought, looking up happily between chapters, I was not sitting in traffic on Rockville Pike.

Part of the sense of place, in the peculiar case of Rockville, is the way Jane and Leon Kramer are practically postsexual and have abandoned all hope of becoming rich (it costs a lot of money just to hang on to their house and store, so they make a lot, spend a lot, and always feel poor), but still perk up and show signs of motivation to get out of Rockville. At the end of the book this will happen; all the suspense and much of the humor lies in finding out how they get out, where they go, and how long they stay.

If your mood is low and you’re looking for someone to look down’re not the only kind of reader who is likely to enjoy this book. If you enjoy Townsend and Fielding, and older comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even Joseph Andrews, you’ll like Rockville Pike, too.

I've already sold the copy I physically owned at the time of first writing, but I'll still sell copies obtained from Amazon as Fair Trade Books: You send me $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, if you add enough books to the package it adds up to less than buying six books separately on Amazon, and I send $1 to Susan Coll or a charity of her choice.