he evolution of a small Midwestern city and its outlying parts is at the center of Off Keck Road. Is this place based on a real town from your life? If so, did you revisit your hometown as it changed or when it was already gone?
I left the Midwest when I was twelve years old and I haven't lived in a small town since. And because I had many important relatives in Wisconsin, I returned to visit many times, both with my mother when I was a child, and then on my own, during college, taking several memorable trips in Greyhound buses and on Amtrak, which, at that time, had a glass roofed car for stargazing at night. I remember coming into my hometown's small, undistinguished bus stop. (By then there was no train station. Only freight trains ran through Green Bay.) In my memory, all my returns take place with me stepping out of a train or bus, under a tent of falling snow.
Often, I think, displaced people imagine themselves leading double lives. So a portion of my identity has always been privately siphoned into what would have been if I had stayed in Wisconsin. A whole imaginary path emerged, who my young loves might have been, where I'd have gone to college, even what I would have become.
I took a vacation there with my family one summer a few years ago, during a heat wave. My son discovered the all-American things we'd somehow avoided in California. He discovered bumper cars and water slides. I took him to Bay Beach, a place I'd gone as a child, but rather than the little train I'd remembered all my life for its enchantments he preferred the huge new miniature golf course.
I found myself, during a horrific heat wave, in the humiliating position of dragging a four-year-old through a cemetery, looking increasingly hysterically for the graves I'd known all my life. As in a story by Kafka or Ishiguro, the path seemed to have vanished. After an increasingly frustrating hour, I resorted to the cemetery's calm simple office, where the dead were organized in something like a library card catalogue. And there simply were no listings for my dead.
There are two female characters, Bea and Shelley, who remain essentially single throughout the novel. One seems to understand that she's had only one chance for love and perhaps rejected it too cavalierly. The other seems to lack any instinct for love. Are these differences of generation, class or the experience of the love expressed by their parents toward each other?
Bea, the older of the women, starts out with, if not every advantage, then certainly most advantages available in her town. She is a doctor's daughter, from a respectable known home, with a college life of sorority parties and friendships easily offered. Yet when a need arises in her family, as the still-single daughter, she is expected, at least by herself, to be the one to take care of her declining mother. As in many moral situations, who knows what came first? Her being unattached and therefore available to take care of her mother or her considering her mother's care important, putting it at the center of her life and therefore remaining unattached. I could have, of course, made the situation clearer, more extreme, put the mother in dire circumstances, for example, taken the doctor out sooner so that if Bea did not come home her mother would have gone to a dismal nursing home and begun a rapid decline. But I prefer the ambiguity and murkiness of fine distinction, the closeness of cause and effect.
Bea had left home for college and a career in Chicago but she returned to Green Bay to take care of her mother even though her father, a respected doctor, told her it was not necessary. Thereafter, she was rooted to the spot for life. Was her mother's unspoken will so powerful or did Bea really want a hometown life for herself?
Her father told Bea it wasn't necessary to move home to take care of her mother, but Bea decided otherwise. A source of humor among the females of the family had always been how little Dr. Maxwell did deem necessary, besides medical emergency. Strictly speaking, in affluent middle class white America, it's almost never absolutely necessary for a grownup to return home to care for a parent. There are nursing homes, there are care facilities, there are people (usually of color, certainly of a different class) to hire to do it for you. Just what kind of care and given by whom is a matter of family honor and moral distinction, often unstated, traditionally instigated and carried out by women.
Sociologists have taught us that other cultures, even within America (African Americans for example) customarily take care of their elderly and their children within kinship relationships. Relatives take care of each other.
Are Bea's fine clothing and imported wools a badge of her career in Chicago after college in the way that her subscription to New York Magazine is her connection to the ad agency where she once worked?
Bea considers herself different from someone who never left her small town. She is someone who left and is back. That implies a deeper level of choice, a freedom to mix and match elements of life. In this regard, she has important predecessors. Alice Munro left her small Ontario town as a young woman and returned to do her most important mature work.
Bea is considered a gossip and a talker. What is the role of gossip and does it relate to the enterprise of fiction?
Gossip is essentially storytelling, storytelling about people whom we know. The word actually derives from "God sib"--sibling of God--and was first used to refer to godparents, sponsors at Baptisms. The OED also lists the term gossip as "applied to female friends invited to be present at a birth."
At the end of the novella, Bea seems to find some peace with herself and a new sense of joy.
Bea does undergo a real change in the course of the novel and I think she finds a kind of exhilaration at the end, after the death of her one chance at a kind of romantic love.
-- Catherine McWeeney