Kitchen-Table Tales of Desire and Will


JANE SMILEY'S two novellas, ``Ordinary Love & Good Will,'' are about loss and acceptance. Though the characters and settings seem, on the surface, vastly different, each story highlights the destructive nature of desire and will, specifically to control situations and people. In the end, Smiley's characters learn a potentially shattering lesson: that it is impossible to control another person's life and almost as difficult to willfully control one's own. In ``Ordinary Love,'' a middle-aged mother describes coming to terms with her life as a single woman with five grown children, who were taken from her by an enraged husband 20 years earlier. His rage stemmed from an affair she had with a neighbor in an attempt to free herself from his oppressiveness.

For a year, the narrator lived in a daze. By attempting to pull away from her husband's unyielding grip, she had relinquished all control of her children and lost everything that was precious to her. Later, when her children are grown and living close by, she struggles between the desire to keep them dependent, making up for lost time when she wasn't allowed to be a mother, and the feeling that she must let go and allow her offspring the opportunity to make their own choices.

``Good Will'' is the story of a self-made man, who, after returning from Vietnam, decides to live entirely off the land; everything he and his young family might need, he creates himself. He takes enormous pride in the fact that what he has made is not only material, but human, too. ``When I look into my son's room, my pleasure is the knowledge that I have brought all of my being to bear here - not just hands and brain, but seed, too, and not just seed, but hands and brain, too.''

It is not coincidental that the husband and father in both of Smiley's stories are egotists. The narrator in ``Ordinary Love'' says of her husband's overbearing love: ``His enthusiasm for family life was the passion, I see now, of a true egomaniac, whose wife and children and dogs are the limbs of his own body.'' Even family dinners become an ordeal for his wife and children as he fervently questions them about their thoughts, ideas, and actions.

His wife starkly confronts the fact that however hard she may try to control her life in a rational way, the desire to control overwhelms her as well.

In ``Good Will,'' Bob Miller thinks he knows exactly what he wants for himself and his family. He loves his wife and son and life on the farm, but most of all, he loves the fact that he has made them what they are. His life is self-contained and he wants to complete this by taking his young son, Tommy, out of school and teaching him at home. ``His schooling is my decision to make.... And as for taking the responsibility for what goes into his head, that ATTRACTS me.''

The only one who is not consulted in any of this is eight-year-old Tommy, who is finishing his last year of elementary school in town. When Tommy starts making trouble at school, harassing a black child by destroying her dolls and ripping her coat, his parents are concerned, but don't view the incidents as signs of deeper trouble. It is only when Miller sees the little girl's house on fire that he realizes his son is beyond his control.

When Tommy is accused of arson and placed in the hands of state welfare workers, Miller realizes his dreams have vanished. He is ordered to comply with the state and leave the farm to secure ``real'' employment, or lose his son. He complies for the sake of his child. ``But it seems to me that what they want of me is to make another whole bubble, the way I made a whole of my family, my farm, my time, a self,'' his self-revelatory voice says with both irony and tragedy.

Smiley writes as if she were sitting at the kitchen table telling a story to a friend. Her style is simple, yet she never misses a detail. This may not be for everyone, but those who look forward to a good chat with a neighbor or a friend will find plenty to talk about.

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