Thursday, August 15, 2013

"The Conditions of Love"

Dale M. Kushner is the founder and director of The Writer’s Place, a literary center in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a recipient of a Wisconsin Arts Board Grant in the Literary Arts and has been honored by a fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation, The Ragdale Foundation, and the Fetzer Institute as a participant of their first writers’ conference on compassion and forgiveness. Her work has been widely published in literary journals including IMAGE, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Salmagundi, Witness, Fifth Wednesday and elsewhere. Her most recent poetry collection More Alive Than Lions Roaring was a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award at Utah State Press, The Prairie Schooner Book Competition, the Agha Shahid Ali Prize at University of Utah Press and The Tupelo Prize. Her story “When You Open the Door, Where Are You?” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She will assume the position of Poetry Editor for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling in September.

Kushner applied the Page 69 Test to The Conditions of Love, her first novel, and reported the following:
Thank you for inviting me to revisit page 69 of The Conditions of Love. It gives me a chance to reengage with an endearing character who has yet to get mentioned in any review: Mr. Tabachnik, the elderly Russian neighbor who lives downstairs from the novel’s two main characters, eleven-year-old Eunice and her glamorous but obstreperous mother, Mern. Mern tends to either steamroll or sweep along everyone in her path and Eunice often needs to escape downstairs to take a breather and listen to opera records while she draws in her sketchbook on Mr. Tabachnik’s Persian rug. As Eumice explains to us: “during my hours with Mr. Tabachnik, I read, I dreamed—we discussed.”

Readers today, in the age of the trial of Ariel Castro, may wonder why a mother would let her daughter spend hours alone in another apartment with a non-family member, but this part of the story takes place during a more innocent time—the 1950s--and did I mention that Mern was hardly a model mother?

By page 69 we’re close to the end of the first third of The Conditions of Love and Eunice is struggling with her conflicted feelings toward the two other men in her life. After being absent her entire childhood, Eunice’s roguish, ne’er-do-well father suddenly reappeared a year ago, and, in a dizzying daylong visit, entranced and left her. And now Mern has a new suitor, ex-sailor Sam -- paunchy, balding, but kind and constant. Is she betraying her dad by liking Sam?

At Mr. Tabachnik’s, Eunice has the space and time to sort through her feelings. And he has other worlds to offer her: the world of opera and art, stories from the Old World, and a set of encyclopedias. Sam has just become the family “hero” by ridding a nearby tree of an infestation of crows—but “crows” conjure up deep, disturbing memories for Mt. Tabachnik:
“So, you want to know a secret about crows?” Mr. Tabachnik said, leaning forward in his chair. “Once,” he said in the most delicate tone, “over there, I ate crow.” His whole body shuddered, and I could feel the horror go through him. “A person never forgets.” He held out his tongue and displayed it as if it were a foreign object, then sank back into a cushion. “A tongue never forgets ... the taste of crow.”
But then, almost as a survivor’s trick, the thought of crows prompts another reaction and Mr. Tabachnik launches into an old folk song “One crow sorry, two crows joy; three crows a letter, four crows a boy; five crows silver, six crows gold; seven crows a secret never to be told.” The cadence and rhymes excite Eunice’s imagination and she responds with her own on-the-spot improvisation “Eight crows diamonds, nine crows pearls; ten crows dreams that take you out of this world.” Mr. Tabachnik practically becomes Henry Higgins: “Very good! Excellent! You’re turning into a poet, eh, Cisskala? A mystic, no less!”

It’s a sweet scene. We get to see eleven-year-old Eunice— away from her mother — revel in the joy of creating— an act that transports her, if only momentarily, away from all that troubles her. This will prove to be a talent, a resource, and a source of solace she will turn to as she grows and grapples with what the world throws at her in the pages to come.
Learn more about the book and author at Dale Kushner's website and blog.

Writers Read: Dale M. Kushner.

--Marshal Zeringue