Underground Reading: Adultery in Suburbia by Matthew Bradley
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Adultury in Suburbia (1964) is a poisonous little tract, disguised as a pornographic one. And that's no bad thing. Matthew Bradley's scathing indictment of Midwestern suburban hypocrisy makes for a much better story than a conventional tale of saucy housewives.
The titular suburbia is the development on River Road, outside of Columbus Ohio. The four houses that make up the estate share both common swimming pool and sense of superiority. The group call themselves "The Cliffdwellers", ostensibly as a joke, but it very quickly becomes apparent that they're a clique of cut-throat bourgeoisie, keen to establish themselves as a new elite.
At the start of the book, three of the four homes are occupied, each with a childless couple. Tom Martin owns a taxicab company and plays in backroom politics. A good proportion of his income is tithed: to local cops, local unions and a national fraternity of mysterious Italian gentlemen. His sense of community spirit stops there, as Tom takes pains not to pay taxes. His wife, Nell, is a former stripper and a lesbian. (Tom knew about half of that when they got married.) They don't get along so well.
Next door live the Durants. George Durant is the "immigrant made good", a Greek man who owns a thriving nightclub. His wife, May, is squeaky clean - the perfectly submissive wife, who lives in a castle in the clouds. Their defining issue is their lack of children. George thinks May is infertile and uses it as an excuse to play around (a lot). May takes this upon herself, and adds a few more bricks to her wall of denial. (The author, interestingly, implies that George is probably impotent: one of the many daggers that Mr. Bradley twists into his characters' backs).
The third "Cliffdweller" family is the Luthers. Millie runs an expensive dress shop and provides for her husband, Norm. Norm is a dreamy, strong-jawed ex-pilot who lost his eyesight in Korea. He is ostensibly emasculated. Norm's imprisoned in the house, given an allowance by his wife and degraded by having to do things like clean and cook dinners. At the same time, he overcompensates by being the local handyman and putting his movie star good looks to good use in bedding any woman that comes nearby. Millie, like May, blames herself for her husband's infidelity. She sees that she's coddled him and removed his spirit. At the same time, Norm loves both being coddles and playing around. Another impressive pair.
All three families are apprehensive when the final house sells and Bill and Sandra Gale move in. Fortunately, some espionage assures them. The Gales ship expensive (but not too expensive) furniture in advance of their arrival, like a herald announcing their appropriate middle-classness. Also, the Gales are from California, which brings its own foreign allure to Ohio.
But the Gales bring more than tasteful furniture and the scent of palm trees - they ride into Columbus fully equipped with their own marital difficulties and dark secrets. Bill is substantially older than Sandra, his twenty-something not-so-blushing bride. He's also a successful insurance salesman, and his exile to Ohio is kneeing his career in the balls. His balls, however, have other problems. Sandra is a (dun-dun-DUN) nymphomaniac.
That's right boys, this naughty tartiflette just can't get enough lovin'. Poor Bill has been shamed out of California after discovering that his virginal bride was hopping into haystacks with every Tom, Dick and Harry on the West Coast. Their (fairly unhelpful) therapist has suggested a change in climate, but warns that couple that, really, it is all Sandra's fault. She'll stop shagging everything that moves when she really wants to. But don't worry, Bill - if you divorce her, she'll probably kill herself. Best. Therapist. Ever.
Given that a sexy suicide pact is out of the question, Bill pleads with his corporate hierarchs for a transfer to someplace a little more wholesome. His bosses, ashamed (yet oddly sympathetic), send Bill and Sandra to Columbus, presumably a city so unsexy than even an nymphomaniac can't get laid.
Although Sandra tries so very, very hard not to have sex with everyone, she's just not up to the challenge. If California was a problem because Sandra had a whole coastline packed with man-meat, her new surburban isolation is even worse. Bill's thrown her onto the land-locked equivalent of a desert island, and the sex sharks are circling.
Being that everyone except Bill isn't dumb (and he's very, very dumb), the other "Cliffdwellers" immediately start jockeying for position. While Bill shakes hands and flips burgers at their nightly BBQs, Sandra fends off (kind of) the wandering hands of George, Tom and Nell. After token resistence ("oh, I shouldn't... but ok"), Sandra falls to George's advances (he grabs her breasts by way of hello). Nell is next (she also grabs Sandra's breasts by way of hello). Soon Sandra is getting pursued incessantly by both of them. Meanwhile, Bill whistles merrily and congratulates himself for taking his wife into such a healthy environment.
Things get stickier when Sandra sleeps with Norm. Although Norm is a known lothario, he's so far managed to keep his own affairs away from the neighborhood. More disconcertingly, Sandra convinces herself that she's in love with the handsome former pilot. George, meanwhile, is sure that Sandra loves him and he loves her. Nell and Tom are now in open warfare, and doing their best to score points by, well, scoring with Sandra.
The only one oblivious to the neighborhood's nightly sexpocalypse? Bill.
Any hope of a "happy" end disappears when Norm's wife, Millie, gets pregnant. Norm stops his wandering ways cold turkey, and Sandra falls apart (apparently that crazy therapist was right!). George, Nell and Tom are all disgusted by her degeneration into a pile of lovelorn goo. The glamour of this nubile new creature has now worn off, and they slink back to their old, familiar ways.
Bill, meanwhile, has no idea.
The author treats his characters with utter contempt and makes sure the reader shares in the joke. Whenever there's any risk of sympathy (or even empathy), Mr. Bradley throws in another tiny detail to showcase how repulsive and hypocritical they all are. Tom is an excellent example - he's slave to Nell (who talks and acts like one of those whip-wielding matrons from an old pulp). But whenever the reader starts to feel for him, there's a reminder that Tom's a sleazy criminal. Only at home does he receive his just desserts, elsewhere, he's busy crushing other people.
May, George's quiet wife, is another seemingly "good" person, but in one key scene, she notices her husband try to rape Sandra at the poolside and quietly returns to her laundry while it is in progress. She projects an air of naivete, but the author makes it clear that it is merely an act. May knows exactly what is going on at all times - including the awful hijinks of her husband, but she deliberately ignores it.
Bill is another one that - in kinder hands - could be seen as sympathetic. Unlike May, he really is ignorant. He has no idea what is going on behind his back (or his in bed), and is convinced that their stay in Columbus really is beneficial for Sandra. His stupidity is annoying, but not damning. Like with Tom, Mr. Bradley redefines Bill by showing what he's up to back at the office. Bill may be rock-dumb in his home life, but in the insurance industry he's the Prince of Darkness. His key moment may be when he earns a promotion by convincing shop-owners in a small town to cancel their insurance while a mad bomber is on the loose. He saves the company millions when their stores are blown up - and he revels in the fact.
Ultimately, only Sandra is merely pathetic, and not loathsome. Although the pseudo-psychology of Adultery in Suburbia is embarrassing, Mr. Bradley does play by the rules he establishes. Sandra must control herself but cannot. And when she is rejected, she shatters. It is ridiculous, but at least it is internally consistent. She, is, however, twice-damned. By making it a matter of willpower, Mr. Bradley puts the onus on Sandra. Yet her "affliction" is such that she's rendered an object - both sexually and of the plot. Sandra is the rock thrown into the small pond, but, because of her weakness, she's also the one doing the throwing.
Adultery in Suburbia is an emotional snuff film - terrible people inflicting hideous damage upon one another. (Alternatively, a Jonathan Franzen book, but 1/10th the length and 1/1000th as likely to ever appear on Oprah.) Readers seeking a prurient escape will best off ignoring the (hilarious) cover and searching for other outlets. As an expression of Sartre's "hell is other people", Adultery in Suburbia is as good as it gets - a modern period drama packed with viciously contemptible people, all receiving their just deserts.