Joan Silber: 'Secrets of Happiness'

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Author, Joan Silber. Photo by Shari Diamond.

Michael Silverblatt encounters ecstasy by embracing Joan Silber’s new novel. She writes about life's strange surprises in “Secrets of Happiness,” which reveals her quest for a canvas that simultaneously explores the small details as well as the large picture. The narrative shifts between points of view that dismantle usual novel progression, creating an accessible enigmatic novel that engrosses the reader. There is no one else like her—she invents a new improvised form for her fiction.

Excerpt from “Secrets of Happiness” by Joan Silber

My mother almost got married when she was nineteen. As she told it, she was a townie that Gil (she liked saying his name) was fooling around with in New Brunswick. He went to Rutgers, and they’d met because she was working as a receptionist for a local New Jersey doctor he went to for a torn rotator cuff. She flirted with a lot of the patients; nobody cared in those days. It was midway into the sixties.

What he liked about her was her lack of timidity (a trait she kept). Their best date was a trip to Asbury Park—he’d never met a girl who wanted to go on the roller coaster two times in a row. All the crazy lurching, the swoops and the turns and the insane dips they could see ahead but couldn’t stop from happening were to her an orchestrated metaphor for the great physical excitement they were privately carrying on whenever they could. She’d been to the park many times as a kid, but on these visits she really understood it. It was a gaudy version of an enormous truth. She explained this to me with more specifics than I wanted.

So she and Gil were out on a warm May evening, right before the end of the semester, and they were strolling the boardwalk with their french fries and red cream sodas after the rides. “You know what?” he said. “You could marry me.”

My mother was wildly flattered—no one had proposed to her before—and she didn’t even really mind the conceited way he phrased it. But the finality of marriage (marriage!) didn’t seem accurate to her for what they had, though she was willing to be open-minded. “Maybe we should live together first?” she said. Since dropping out of college she’d been living at home and was eager not to.

“Forget it then,” he said. She hadn’t known how insulted he would be. He stopped right there on the boardwalk and turned around and walked them back to the parking lot, a long and winding walk (it took her a minute to stop thinking: No frozen custard?). “We don’t have to leave,” she said. “Are we leaving? Don’t leave!”

He hated anything she said then, no matter how tearful she got. “I should’ve known,” he kept saying. “You’re such an infant, you have no clue at all.” She hadn’t expected him to turn on her like that. They had more dates before they actually broke up, but that was the end of whatever good times they had. • • •

Years later, after my mother had lived all over the world, she was shopping in New York for a jacket, and she saw Gil’s name on a label. She knew it was really Gil, she knew he’d gone into the clothing business, but still it was a shock to see the threaded letters in satin. “I knew I couldn’t buy the jacket,” she said. “Nothing against Gil, but nobody wants the past muttering to her every time she gets dressed. Does she?”

The next boyfriend she had, after Gil, saw how well situated she was for swiping a few boxes of pharmaceuticals from the doctor’s office. She didn’t think anyone would catch her and they didn’t. She packed the goods neatly in her tote bag, under a flowered silk scarf. “Good girl,” Quinn, the boyfriend, said. She’d expected heartier praise, and he didn’t kiss her until after he’d counted the bottles. She was excited anyway. She wanted to be a different sort of person and he was offering lessons.

He’d wanted the drugs to sell, not use, though they did try them and get stoned and drowsy and physical (as they called it then) in slow ways. They were in his apartment at the time, in another part of her town. She fell asleep and didn’t go home to her parents’ house till morning, and the ruckus when she walked in, all the shouting and insults, caused her to see that she really could not live there anymore.

So Quinn was her ticket out (somewhat to his surprise). They had to move her belongings from the family home during her lunch hour, when no parent was in sight; he came in his car to get her and her duffle full of clothes. She was so young some of them still had nametapes from camp. And then he was picky where she put them in his closet.

She got along with everyone at the doctor’s office, she had a good personality, so no one worried if she spent a few minutes in the back closet, getting her hands on a few more drugs Quinn knew the names of. She went slow on the thefts, small amounts each time; she saw the risks. Quinn would have had her trucking out every bit of stock in uppers or downers they had. Let him call her chicken-shit if he wanted; limits were needed. She brought a bunch of daffodils to the office by way of apology the day she explained to the good doctor (he wasn’t that good) that she had to leave very soon to go back to school. “Pre-law,” she said. “It’ll be a grind.” Who goes to school in April? No one said a word. Her new zest for falsity did nothing but pay off.

Quinn was furious that she’d quit without even consulting him. “What am I supposed to do now?” he said.

“I have to tell you,” she said. “I might have a job in London.”

One advantage of working for a doctor who treated sports injuries was that a lot of men came through the door. She’d been having a thing with someone named Matthew, who had hurt his knee hiking the Kittatinny Ridge. He wanted to start off in England and go on the overland route across Europe to Asia—take buses or trains or hitch rides on trucks—through Turkey and Iran and Afghanistan, as far as the Himalayas. It would take them months but it wouldn’t cost much. My mother wanted something but she didn’t know what, and this was the best theory she’d heard, the most ambitious. She had a little money from her share of the drug profits, to get them started, and he was selling a car he had.

“What kind of job?” Quinn said.

“In a hotel,” she said. “My cousin knows someone in this London hotel.”

She must have been slightly afraid of Quinn to announce her leaving in this way. And leave she did. He called her names but he didn’t stop her, and she went back to her parents just for a few days (her family was still mad she hadn’t stayed with Gil) and then she slipped off for good with dear Matthew. A man with a generally nice character, though my mother had no idea then really. He’d found a cheap charter flight to London, and she even liked the crummy airline food, she was so excited. She fell asleep on his shoulder with the tray still in front of her. And that was how I came to spend the first nine years of my life in Nepal.

Excerpted from Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber. Published by Counterpoint. Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.