SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS by Laura Cunningham, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 195 pp., $18.95
`SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS'' is a touching, funny book about growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s. It is the story of Lily. She has no father. (Her mother says he is fighting World War II, which shows a great deal of commitment as the war had ended seven years earlier.) Lily's mother dies suddenly, and two uncles, her mother's brothers, move into Lily's apartment and become her guardians. These are eccentric but lovable guys who give up their personal lives to take care of an eight-year-old they hardly know.
Uncle Len dislikes material possessions - giving the apartment a minimalist look in furniture, favoring ``file cabinets over ordinary bureaus.'' He teaches Lily to file her clothes alphabetically. Uncle Gabe is a tad obsessive - scouring the floor until it warps. He ``buys brand-name cleaners but doesn't know their traditional functions. The result: He uses bathroom scouring powder on wooden floors, and pours Clorox bleach on the polished parquet.''
The threesome is joined by the uncles' mother, Lily's grandmother - an elderly Russian immigrant who steals Lily's jewelry, wears her clothes, and cuts the pictures of relatives that she doesn't like from the family photo album. This unlikely m'enage lives with neighbors and Lily's friends in an apartment building, AnaMor Towers (named for the owners - Anna and Morris Snezak) in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.
Laura Cunningham has captured the neighborhood, the times, even the ways people think and talk. She has written a loving coming-of-age memoir that is hard to put down and makes you laugh out loud.
The writing is breezy and the pace is quick. But there are several dark episodes in the book which do not work, given the style. Particularly disturbing is the casual treatment without any reference to long-term consequences of five-year-old Lily's sexual abuse by a stranger. So are the precocious sexual fantasies of her friend Susan. Nonetheless, Lily is convincing as the narrator. In fact, the novel reads more like good autobiography than fiction. Character development is uneven, however. In contrast to Lily and her grandmother, the characters of the uncles are less complete and not wholly distinguishable.
Above all, ``Sleeping Arrangements'' is about family. In an age in which Americans lament the decline of the family, this is the story of a probable out-of-wedlock birth, a single-female-headed household, a foster family, and parents who know nothing about parenting. It could have been a tragedy, a real horror story. The tabloids are filled with them every day.
But it didn't happen here. Instead, Lily grows up to be a normal, original, and successful person. She says of her home and family, ``There is no place ... in the world where I could go that could be as safe and as comforting.''
In contrast, several of Lily's friends are lost along the way. They come from more traditional families. Susan is given away after her father dies by a mother who does not want her. Diane, from a large Catholic family, is lost to the streets. So what is a good family? Cunningham says that beyond basic resources and shelter, it's love. The answer is at once too simple and impossible to turn into public policy, but it is appealing.
``Sleeping Arrangements'' is also about the power of education. Cunningham takes us back to a time when it was common knowledge in the Bronx that with schooling any kid could succeed. The author creates a family that is Jewish, but their religion is education and their place of worship is the schoolhouse. The walls of grandma's and Lily's bedroom are covered with the uncles' framed diplomas and a photomontage of caps and gowns. Family voices catch when the word ``diploma'' is mentioned. In fact, grandma wails ``I am nothing without a college diploma.''
This commitment is handed down to Lily as her birthright. She, of course, goes to college. There is no family discussion about whether to go, only where. It is all as natural as a compass needle pointing north.
The magic is that the common knowledge works - with education Lily succeeds, enjoying a better life than her family. And to the reader the whole account appears entirely credible.
This is one of those books that make you sad when it ends, because you want it to go on forever. It will make a wonderful movie. Yet it leaves you with a bittersweet feeling - very happy for Lily, but thinking America once did far better for its children than it does today.
We live in an age when the belief in education is declining and love is harder to find.