November 25, 1997
THE LADY WHO LIKED CLEAN REST ROOMS
J. P. Donleavy, St. Martin's Press, 1997, $18.95.
This hilarious tragedy of a divorced "Mayflowered" Scarlet O'Hara living in Scarsdale with a rapidly declining bank account provokes more laughs than sighs. Jocelyn Guenevere Marchantiere Jones, forty-three, has no idea what to do with the rest of her life after her unloved and boring but rich husband has left her for "fresh flesh" in the form of a twenty-five-year-old former cheerleader from Mississippi who made Phi Beta Kappa, a new age Scarlet.
Jocelyn's story opens on her birthday, which she celebrates by drinking vodka, eating sardine paste and bread and listening to Faure's Requiem. She loads her shotgun when she hears suspicious noises, but, while "watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities" speaking meaningless nonsense on a late night T.V. show, she blows her T.V. set away. Her analyst applauds her "trendiness," informing her that everyone in New York is shooting television sets. She tells the analyst what she thinks is wrong: "...it seemed the game they were all playing was to appear important. But not to let people know what you were really thinking, that you were really a horse's ass. Her analyst said when you did let people know you really were a horse's ass, that was when you really were emotionally disturbed." Jocelyn goes on to do just that: tell people what she is really thinking.
She soon finds that her divorce settlement, which she dictated, is woefully inadequate, so she sells her house for nearly a million dollars and is rich again, but not for long. She does not regret the sale of the house: "She learned that the more empty rooms you had to go into and get depressed the more depressed you got."
She does soon regret having turned her money over to an incompetent and perhaps dishonest financial adviser who loses all but $13,400.82 to live on for the rest of her life. Desperately seeking a job, she finds that her Bryn Mawr education has not prepared her for gainful employment. She settles for waitressing, a career that comes to a dramatic end when, upon being accused of bringing the wrong wine to a diner, she pours an entire bottle of vintage Gevry Chambertin on his head. She then informs him of exactly whose knowledge of wine he has dared to question: "I've been at Bryn Mawr you regrettable oaf and you're probably from the Bronx."
Wondering what she should do in order to live, she questions her elitist education and background and thinks that "Perhaps the peasant European stock most Americans had descended from had got it right the first time and just made women beasts of burden and told their women to shut up, ...shut up about facials and perfume and getting your hair done and get out toting that bale."
She knows what her "dear granny" from the plantation in South Carolina would say: "My dear, need you ask. You stay and remain as you always were, a lady. But of course reserving being always ready to kick a bastard who deserves it in the balls."
She finally resorts to the role she played in her loveless marriage, prostitution. A drunken married acquaintance comes calling after midnight. She quickly offers him what he has come for if he will quickly hand over $500.00 (the rent is due) and take no more than twenty minutes of her time. Shocked and horrified that a lady would exchange sex for money, he empties his pockets anyway but can only find $135.86. The dialogue between the society matron fallen on hard times and the lecherous uninvited guest produces a wildly comic scene.
Jocelyn is saved in the end by the advice her Southern grandmother gave her: Ladies should only visit clean rest rooms. The glorious twist of the plot at the end is a tribute to granny's advice.
There is another surprise for the reader on the last page, turning this brilliantly funny novel into a philosophical meditation. The second level is a sad story represented by Jocelyn's alter ego, a young woman who was being held in the house next to her Scarsdale mansion. The young woman is the madwoman in the attic whom Jocelyn tried to rescue once. She reappears immediately after Jocelyn's hard times have suddenly ended:
"Who was she now. A lady of leisure. Who did not have to please, deceive or cajole. Who could afford not to have to be a whore or a nun. And getting off the train tonight the man in the military greatcoat tipped his bowler hat to her. Offered her a lift home in his car. He seemed a little drunk. And getting off the train as she waited for a taxi she saw the girl again who'd been handcuffed in the window of the house in Winnapoopoo Road. She was flanked by two minders. She looked haggard and terrified. And they pulled her into the back of a big black limousine which sped away."
With her status as a kept woman re-established, Jocelyn still has a long way to go.