Sunday, June 10, 2012

"In the Kingdom of Men"

Kim Barnes's books include two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—Hungry for the World, and the novels Finding Caruso and A Country Called Home.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, In the Kingdom of Men, and reported the following:
From Page 69:
Rafiq, the lean Lebanese beautician, worked at the rats in Ruthie’s bouffant, combing his way up from ends to scalp, and I was next. I needed a new style, Ruthie had insisted, for my interview with Sun and Flare in Dhahran. “I know the editor, Nestor Reedy,” she had said when I opened my mouth in surprise, “and you need a hobby so you don’t go bonkers.” I wondered whether she somehow sensed in me that desire I had felt as a girl to be the maker of my own stories. All those diary pages, all that dreaming... “Your head is in the clouds,” my grandfather said to me, “and that’s not the same as heaven.”

The dryer’s heat made the beauty shop hotter than the air outside. “The bathroom faucet broke,” Maddy was complaining,“but do you think Burt could fix it? No, sir. He can drill a well a mile deep but can’t plumb a faucet. I had to call in the coolies.” I focused on the familiar pages of Aramco World, then used it as a fan. I had garbed myself in slacks and a seersucker blouse, but Ruthie sat cool in her sleeveless white shell, black capris, and pearly red flats.

“Did you hear about Katie Johnson?” Candy leaned in, her voice breathy and sharp. “They flew her out last night. Nervous breakdown.”

Maddy started to respond, then cut her eyes my way, needles clicking. I pretended to be absorbed in the magazine, imagining the articles I might write if I could report what I heard at the beauty shop.

“Gin is going to be reporting for Sun and Flare,” Ruthie announced as though reading my mind.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” Candy said, her voice tipped with jealousy, “but Ross won’t let me work.”

“Ross is crazy,” Ruthie said, and nodded to me. “Your turn.”

She slid from the chair before Rafiq could release the foot pump.
How could you not keep reading a page that begins with a lean Lebanese beautician? I’m just sayin’…

I feel lucky. This is a scene that I’m really fond of because it sets up all kinds of interactions that will inform the story. Part of the Arabian American Oil Company’s obligation in the 1960s was to employ as many Arabs as possible—but only the men, of course. I came across the Lebanese hairdresser in the journals of an American expat and found the irony irresistible.

The Aramco wives represent the microcosm that is the compound, with all its various hierarchies: My main character Gin, out of poorest Oklahoma, is a “fresh young thing” with a handsome, ambitious husband. She threatens the older and very vain Candy Fullerton, a social climber who is married to the district manager. Maddy Cain, whose husband is a man of great integrity, has been made bitter by all her years in the desert and lets her resentment show, while Ruthie, married to a Cajun driller, is Gin’s best friend and has the spirit of someone who takes the party with her wherever she goes—she is the party. (What isn’t apparent in this scene is another conflict: Ruthie is Jewish, Maddy, fundamentalist Christian, and they are inside a gated compound in the middle of the Arabian Desert. At a future point in the story, Maddy will say to Gin, “You seem like a nice Christian girl. I’m surprised that you keep such company.”)

It’s Ruthie who will serve as Gin’s coming-of-age guide and teach her the ropes of “camp” life, including how to spend time so that “time doesn’t spend you.” The more independent Gin becomes, the more risks she takes, until what might seem at first like a novel of manners turns increasingly toward betrayal and intrigue.
Read more about In the Kingdom of Men at Kim Barnes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue