Tasty Frieze

FriezeThe literary genre known as narrative non-fiction is all the rage today. Bookstores -- from Barnes and Borders to that place with the cat in window and the door that squeaks out a perfect E-flat -- are stocked to the gills with tomes wherein writers confess, profess, regress, digest, and digress -- all starring the character known as me, myself and I. Even the editor of The New York Times Book Review has opined that we seem to be living in a non-fiction "moment." Having said that, the drive for narrative is so strong, so up to the minute -- whether it's Augusten Burroughs's family moving all their furniture out onto the front lawn or it's the latest "...he/she was an abused child of a drug-loving Hollywood movie star/Supreme Court justice/Senator/news anchor," it seems like these kinds of stories were made for our time.

But they weren't. They have a history. Usually, you find them buried in the dusty, musty humor section in the back of the used book store where the door squeaks out a perfect G-sharp and they have three to six cats laying around. Many of them were published in the New Yorker -- narrative non-fictions like Clarence Day's gaslight-era slice of life, Life With Father; Ludwig Bemelmens's somber, black humor My War With the United States (to think he's only known for Madeline -- cute, but still) that unwinds on the homefront during the First World War; and finally (geez, I'm finally getting to it), Allan Seager's amazing A Frieze of Girls, Memoirs as Fiction. This collection, first published in 1964 and long out of print, was recently republished under the loving impetuses of Charles Baxter, the great writer and teacher of fiction at Seager's alma mater in Ann Arbor. McSweeney's Internet Tendency touted the revival of the book quite heavily a couple of years ago, but it didn't mean anything to me until I read an old Esquire magazine humor anthology and creaked the pages back to find one of Seager's incredible tales. The story was called "Miss Anglin's Bad Martini," and involved frat boys at the University of Michigan concocting some very nasty bathtub gin during Prohibition and using it to try to entice a visiting actress to -- to -- well, they are almost too naive to realize what they might hope to be getting out of it.

But the worldly wise Miss Anglin knows. In a memorable sequence, Seager and his frat buddy actually get the diva into their frat house -- against all propriety -- and she asks why the boys are hiding away.

"Aren't you allowed even to look at women?" she asks.

"It's the other way around, Miss Anglin," I said, I thought neatly. "You aren't allowed to look at us. We're taking showers. You wouldn't want to run into a nude young man."

"Why not?" she said crisply.

I didn't know why not but at least I didn't say, "Well, gosh." I only laughed nervously.

A world of knowledge and daring is packed into that exchange. And humor. And a picture of America -- in all its freewheeling, rule-breaking glory. The rest of the book proceeds like that, all the humorous notes anchored in the seriousness of a very tough time, complete with death, disease, bitterness, crime, and ice-cold swimming pools. And all along the way, Seager's beautiful honesty matches his honestly beautiful prose -- the scenes are spun out of his life. Particularly memorable is when he describes how he ended up being awarded his Rhodes Scholarship and the strange splendor of Oxford life between the wars, especially for a Yankee (albeit originally from the South), a Yankee on the nationally ranked University of Michigan swimming team no less.

Googling shows that Seager wrote a lot of other things, included an acclaimed novel or two and a critical biography of a poet friend of his, Theodore Roethke. But these tales, this linked narrative, is funny and sad and historic and personal and dark and probing and uncomfortable-making and spirit-lifting and, as Gershwin once said, who could ask for anything more?

Oh, one last thing, the title. A Frieze of Girls. Well, a frieze is the sculpted parade of figures you see running around the top of Greek and Roman temples and banks. Someone once asked Seager how he remembered college, and out popped the phrase, I remember it as a frieze of girls. Quite an image.

'Til next time...

Ken Krimstein Ken.jpgMr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.