This shift of chronological focus is similar to that found in Little Follies. There the opening stories carry Peter from toddler to a young boy of almost nine. Time then becomes elastic and – as in this book – turns on itself before it rejoins chronological order to continue the story.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Herb ‘N’ Lorna: A Love Story
by Eric Kraft
Paperback: 328 pages
Picador; Reprint edition (November 1995)
In Little Follies the prefaces were used partly to distinguish between what Peter allowed without any guarantees to be true and what was fictional. In Herb ‘n Lorna the preface functions as most prefaces do, as an explanation of the reason that the author wrote the book. Gumma, the sweet lady with the curious hobby of working problems out with a slide rule, was otherwise to Peter the stereotypical grandmother. He now finds on the morning just prior to her funeral that Lorna Piper was an artist and that her art consisted in the carving of erotic figures. For some of these her gifted husband Herb Piper – he had died three years before Lorna – supplied the mechanical apparatus that made the loving couples of Lorna’s carvings move with breathcatching realism. This disturbs Peter. It forces him to reconsider Gumma and Guppa as these very different people, Herb and Lorna, masters of a difficult and little known art and possessors of impulses and imaginations startlingly like his own.
That one at least of his friends, Mark Dorset, knew of this before Peter did is a further source of distress. It is distress in fact that makes him reluctant to write the account of his grandparents’ lives. He wants them as grandparents but the world will not permit this. The fame of their art in more permissive times grows and provokes the kind of resistance that is tiresomely familiar. When the Prude Pride members and the Mothers against Sex protest the Smithsonian exhibit of Herb and Lorna’s work Peter decides that only he has the position, the skill and the obligation to tell their story. (Peter’s preface is dated 1987; Lorna died in 1973.)
Herb ‘n Lorna, not the first written but the first published book by Eric Kraft, marks a radical difference from Little Follies. Herb ‘n Lorna is continuous narration and has none of the episodic leeway that distinguished Little Follies. More importantly, it removed its attention from Peter Leroy to a couple that Peter only thought that he knew. In a sense Little Follies is an ego-drenched book. Peter implies in the preface that only he could have written Herb ‘n Lorna but for the reader who comes to this book before having read any of the others this is not true. Herb ‘n Lorna stands by itself, as within and outside of Peter’s world as the reader’s familiarity with Kraft will dictate.
I must say something about the front matter. The epigraph from Proust is scarcely surprising given Kraft’s devotion to Proust and the epigraph from Fats Waller is a splendid if unexceptional choice. The epigraph from Mark Dorset is another matter. Both Proust and Waller were real in the pedestrian sense of the word but Mark Dorset is not. He is Peter’s friend and as such lives only within the pages of “his” books. Mark quotes himself and refers to Alfred Tarski and John Venn. Both of these men are as real as Proust and Waller. It is necessary to point this out since Peter’s world often contains authorities unknown to ours.
The dedication reads “For Bill ‘n Edna.” It seems a safe assumption that these are Kraft’s maternal grandparents. The other dedications (up to and including Inflating a Dog) of Kraft’s books are “For Mad” or, in the case of Reservations Recommended, “For Mad, Scott and Alexis.”
The model introduced – numbered and titled chapters – indicates an approach that looks backwards to earlier models of the novel. This is not a Modernist work but one that is cozily at home with Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. To underline this similarity, Kraft uses the traditional opening. He describes the community and he gives a history of the families most closely involved in the narrative. The town of Chacallit, a name based on a joke of a rather tame sort, through economic stagnation avoided the blight of renewal but was saved from collapse by the establishment of a timely and prosperous industry.
Although the first Huber in Chacallit was a thief, his descendants were mostly mild folk who occupied the middle echelons of the men’s furnishing industries that gave the town its mediocre prosperity until the period after the Second World War. Kraft describes Chacallit in a way that would fit in some respects the real town of Caroga but the identification is neither firm nor important. He further rounds out the reality of Chacallit by listing significant businesses on Chacallit’s River Road. These include a bar that serves domestic and imported water (Eau Boy) and a shop (Hot-Cha-Chatchkes) that specializes in gewgaws of the 1920s. The town is built a slope that would seem to make habitation impossible. At least, as Peter observes, it makes croquet a nightmare.
The Huber that we are interested in is Lorna and Kraft makes us present at her christening party. He names some of the participants: Richard, Lorna’s father; Uncle Luther, Richard’s brother; and Bertha and Clara, Lorna’s sisters. Bertha and Clara are jealous of the new sister. Both of them stuff themselves as silent protest against the indifference to them of parents and friends. Bertha eats so much she makes herself sick. Their malevolence, especially Bertha’s, will be a factor in subsequent events and Kraft will emphasize for us that this is a modern day retelling of Cinderella and her evil sisters. And it is the sisters themselves that first called Lorna Cinderella. Originally a cruel taunt, it turned into a distinction that made Bertha and Clara regret what they had begun. Lorna signed her greetings cards to them “Cinderella,” and she will name her daughter Ella
In this short chapter we have had several different narrative strategies: the wide look at the town and its surroundings; the examination of its business structure; the christening scene with its objective reporting style; and the unedited reminiscences on tape of Lorna’s old friend, May Castle. May, Peter mentioned in the preface, did not live to see the completion of Herb ‘n’ Lorna.
By way of introduction to the next chapter Peter quotes from the croquet rules book that went with the house that the Hubers lived in. The earliest quoted entry is 1856 but the entry of special interest is that of 1910 written by the nine year old Lorna. “Driving the ball of a player who is injured or who does not have the full use of his fingers is not fair play.” Lorna intended this rule for the benefit of her Uncle Luther who had lost three of his fingers in an unfortunate demonstration of plant machinery.
Uncle Luther was originally a staid bachelor but he buys a Studebaker and begins to sow belated wild oats. He has two Studebakers, one of which he has equipped with runners so that he can operate it as a sleigh. His madcap driving of either loosens his attitude towards women and he pursues with success the factory girls of Chacallit. He is also an erotic enticement to his nieces.
Luther created the erotic jewelry trade almost by accident. While daydreaming of a current conquest, he draws her in a nude and lascivious pose. He conceals the drawing but it goes by accident to the marketing department where the drawing is evaluated by a perceptive but unimaginative researcher – also a Huber by the way – who responds with a report that is ludicrous in its lack of affect. Luther arranges for the distribution of his new product line through the salesmen of “Professor” Alonzo Clapp, a bookseller.
It is Luther who discovers Lorna’s talent for modeling. As a result of an accident to a gift that Luther had fashioned for her fourth year birthday – an accident in which Lorna discerns the extent of Bertha’s hatred for her – Lorna makes copies of the gift in papier-mâché, each copy progressively better than the one before.
Four years later Bertha succeeds in her intended seduction of Uncle Luther. Lorna spies on their lovemaking. She never told anyone until Garth Castle got her a little drunk and she entertained Garth, May and Herb with the story, which she told incomparably but which she would never repeat. Lorna, having surpassed Uncle Luther as an artist, begins to work a little at the plant. Luther has many reasons to want Lorna, now sixteen, to carve erotic figures for him but among his reasons is one that turns out wrong: Lorna does not lust for him as Bertha does. But in a boat on Lake Serenity she almost succumbs to his efforts. His maimed hand distresses her and possibly she dislikes the idea of being loved by her sister’s lover and she denies him. There is now a reserve between them that nothing can surmount. Their relations are only so warm as to disarm the suspicions of others. After at least a year when Lorna is at home with her parents on a cold and rainy night, a stranger comes to the door. It is Herb.
The narrative is a mixture of direct story telling and an interval from May Castle’s tape. But Peter will not let us off so easily. His directness will shift as in the next chapter he retreats from Lorna as a young woman and he takes up the story of Herb from the time of his birth.
This shift of chronological focus is similar to that found in Little Follies. There the opening stories carry Peter from toddler to a young boy of almost nine. Time then becomes elastic and – as in this book – turns on itself before it rejoins chronological order to continue the story.
Just as Kraft favors us with the history of the Hubers so now he sketches that of the Pipers but we are brought up short with the crossing of the real with Peter’s imaginary world. Thomas Piper was real – in our sense of the term – and he was an associate of Frederick Lewis Tudor in the early days of the ice business. Kraft generously gives him to Herb as a great-grandfather. There is even an absurd engraving with arrows to identify Thomas, Frederick and Nathaniel Wyeth engaged on the ice with their workers. Kraft uses this as an illustration to Herb ‘n’ Lorna and it looks so much like a joke that it comes as a shock to learn that it is in fact exactly what it purports to be.
The matter of ice merchandizing contains for Kraft historical pertinence and a moral: “Surely the ice trade, based as it was on teaching people to want something that they hadn’t even known existed before, selling something for which there was no demand, marks the dawn of modern marketing, and the Piper family, in the person of Thomas Piper, was there.”
Peter takes all this to another level. It becomes the story of Cracked Ice, a Marx brothers movie in which Groucho is Frederick Lewis Tudor, Chico is Thomas Piper and Harpo is Nathaniel Wyeth.
But the “real” Piper family is unable to sustain prosperity because of the chronic propensity of many of its members for foolish decisions, “a foolish Piper thing” is what the family calls it. Thomas’ older son, Eleazer, persuades his brother and sister to take their money out of ice and invest it in Tono-Bungay. Thus the children of a real person lose all their money to a fictitious market swindle. This Kraftian mixture of real and imagined and of imagined with imagined is boldly applied and is successfully designed to dazzle and delight.
Herb’s development is more straightforward than Lorna’s and Kraft can bring him up to his fifteenth year with little effort. Uncle Benjamin, his father’s brother, comes to the rescue through Herb of his brother’s family. Lester Piper in a fit of typical Piper misjudgment lost his investment and that of his wife’s family in his firm to manufacture cork furniture. He has not lost the will to live but he has lost the will to make a living. He sits and mopes in his cork armchair while his son and wife struggle to keep the family going. Uncle Ben offers a position of salesman to Herb. He will sell “Professor” Alonzo Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf of Indispensable Information for Modern Times. These are actually a random assemblage of any remaindered books that Clapp can get his hands on. Herb will also sell coarse-goods (the name in the gentleman’s furnishings trade for erotic jewelry), as his uncle explains to him out of the hearing of Herb’s mother.
Uncle Ben overcomes Herb’s hesitations and scruples. He appeals to Herb’s love for his mother, the pride that she will take in his success and the way in which he can bring comfort and leisure into her life.
Herb surpasses his uncle as a salesman of both books and jewelry but he succumbs to his love for making things, in this case shelves expandable to the full five feet of the professor’s library and hidden drawers to store the jewelry. These are artfully contrived and splendidly finished but he loses money on each one that he sells. In an excerpt from May Castle’s tape we learn that Herb’s love of making and fixing was a durable part of his nature and that it was innocently free of practicality.
But overall Herb is a success and he eases his mother’s life immeasurably. His father continues in his pose of morose failure but Herb buys himself a car and is making a great thing out of his life.
Peter conducts an interesting improvisation. Herb meets Tessie, an unhappy young woman married to an older man. Both Arthur and Tessie are unhappy and Herb would have been a welcome party to their misery, which Peter displays to the point where, with Arthur’s tacit consent, Herb becomes Tessie’s lover. This whole nasty situation, which never progressed beyond the initial meeting, is thwarted when Herb gets drafted. Herb sees this as a great opportunity to sell erotic jewelry and he and Uncle Ben decide to cut Professor Clapp out of the transaction. Together they plan a trip to Chacallit. They need to identify and make a deal with their source. This doesn’t prove difficult. Uncle Ben perceives that the dining room of the Chacallit House is the nerve center of the town and merely takes up a position there to allow himself to be looked over and approached. While Ben acts as bait for the locals, Herb takes himself out of the way and sells books. Ben doesn’t have to wait very long before a man offers to arrange a meeting of Ben with Luther.
It is interesting to observe how prominent uncles are in Herb ‘n’ Lorna. And how little concerned they are with what passes for conventional morality. Little Follies shows a family of grandparents. Perhaps its most prominent uncle is Larry Peter’s Uncle Hector but he is no more than a name, one that he has to share with the family dog.
Herb is still selling on his second day and it has begun to rain. He determines to make only one more stop. It is the Huber home on Ackerman Hill and Lorna opens the door. This unites the action with the close of Chapter 2. Lorna has a surface loveliness but this is often elevated with sudden flashes of soul-stopping beauty. After an initially normal meeting, one of these transformations takes place and her beauty stuns Herb into a state of complete befuddlement. Her father calls them into the house off the porch and Lorna introduces Herb in such a way that her parents believe that they should know him. Kraft lets us see them struggle in this situation while Lorna suppresses her mirth and Herb is not altogether certain about what is going on. It is like the scene in Do Clams Bite’ (Little Follies) when Peter pretends death for the benefit of bystanders and to the confusion of his father and grandfather who have no idea of why he is acting so strangely.
Lorna and Herb feel a strong attraction to each other but civilized reticence restrains them and Peter produces an appropriate comment from the May Castle tape. Those readers who already know her from Little Follies may be surprised when she refers to herself as inhibited.
But Herb is unable to leave things as they are. In the morning he returns to the Huber home, meets Lorna and they reach an understanding although to an imaginary third person listening their conversation would have sounded like a business discussion. Kraft uses his metaphors where he finds them and business ventures – like the history of the early ice trade – fire his imagination. The erotic jewelry trade itself has many analogues with creativity itself as Kraft perceives it. It is a dangerous craft, scarcely legal, certainly not respectable and presenting opportunities for artistry that exist nowhere else.
We learn again that Herb is from Boston. At first glance this seems irrelevant since, after all, he had to be from somewhere and Boston serves as well as anywhere. But the choice of Boston raises considerations. In the next book, Reservations Recommended, Boston is the scene and it doesn’t show itself in a very glowing light. This perhaps reflects the difficult character of its protagonist, Matthew Barber, but it may also show in Kraft, born in the small town of Babylon, New York, an uneasiness about the big cities. It is significant perhaps that the book now in progress contemplates Peter in New York City and the reintroduction of Matthew Barber as a major character.
Herb, Lorna, Uncle Luther and Chacallit all respond to the Great War in characteristic ways. Lorna has even greater shame in her erotic jewelry now that she has met Herb, an apparent straight shooter, to use the language of the time. Uncle Luther sees the production of erotic carvings for the military to be a new and exciting market. Herb is finding this to be true. It is, he finds, so easy to sell erotic jewelry that he can raise his prices to any level that he wishes. He is also intent – the constant fixer and improver – on correcting the design faults of the coffee cup in the field ration package – referred to in terms of clamshells. He redesigns it so that it will not collapse and spill hot coffee on the user. Chacallit bursts forth in patriotic ardor and special associations spring up in response to various wartime needs. Peter quotes Ida Clyde Clarke. Yes, there was an Ida Clyde Clarke and she wrote the book from which Peter quotes. Step wary, reader.
Lorna works at assembling kits for soldiers, called Comfort Kits. Into some of these she slips an erotic ivory figure. She becomes a legend among the soldiers. Herb suffers a wound that puts him out of the war. In the hospital where he recovers, he works on coffee cup repair and eventually has fifty convalescents working on the project.
Herb and Lorna write each other. In one of these letters Herb mentions his liking for onion sandwiches, a taste that he still has when as a grandfather he builds a short wave radio for his grandson Peter Leroy (Little Follies – The Static of the Spheres.’)
Lorna, incensed with receiving less pay than the man that she had replaced, confronts Uncle Luther who blandly turns aside all her claims and provokes her into quitting the manufacture of erotic jewelry, a result acceptable to him since the superiority of her work has lowered production and morale among the other workers. He tries to blackmail her and she retorts effectively in kind. He cannot tell her parents what kind of carving she has been doing because she can tell her parents what he has been up to with their daughters.
Herb is guarding prisoners of war and has put them to work repairing coffee cups. In a scene replete with the phony ethnic diversity of the typical war movie, Herb receives the recognition of Black Jack Pershing himself. He does not give Herb a medal. He gives him an erotic button to sew on his shirt. When he returns from France, he places the button in his gear and never shows it to anyone except Uncle Ben who marvels over its workmanship.
Herb’s return from France does not go as the reader of mainstream fiction would expect. He does not rush to Chacallit and Lorna. She is the first thing on his mind but the first thing that he sees is Alice Mills, sixteen and luscious and very anxious to ensnare him. Lorna at the same time has allowed herself to be ensnared by Andrew Proctor, Chacallit’s returned war hero. Mrs. Mills, a comic character of brilliance, urges the match between Herb and Alice ostensibly so that her teenage daughter can find a husband before her beauty fades but secretly because she fears that as long as Alice remains unmarried and living at home she will need to live in her daughter’s shadow. Herb’s final conquest of Alice’s virginity is a disappointment and a revelation to both of them. They are not suitable for each other.
When we rejoin Lorna we find her also having misgivings. Andrew is an undis-puted hero but he is not very bright and he is definitely a bore. When Andrew makes love to her in the back of his car, which is significantly not a Studebaker, she has reflections that are too funny not to quote:
To be fair, her expectations may have been too high. Lorna was a nineteen-year-old virgin who in the last two years had spent approximately twenty-six hundred hours scrutinizing sexual performances of great diversity and sophistication and replicating them in ivory, with painstaking exactitude. Though she didn’t yet know what she liked, she knew much about the art.
Uncle Ben expected the war to last longer and in that expectation had overstocked on the books that he was selling as the Doughboy’s Dozen. To make up for his losses he proposes the idea of movable erotic jewelry. Herb manufactures a prototype but refuses further involvement. He is devoted to Lorna and he knows that she would be ashamed of his work in coarse goods. With the prototype and very different intentions Herb and Uncle Ben make their way to Chacallit
Lorna is not now working. Luther had made a particular point in letting her go when the men returned from the war. She is therefore at home when Herb stops at the house. What they say to each other is far from what they want to say and Kraft makes us aware of both the surface and the inner conversation.
In a skillfully presented interview Lorna and Uncle Luther skirmish and negotiate about Lorna’s returning to carving. She sees the prototype and finds it charming but she refuses to return to carving. She is done with that forever.
She and Herb drive to a dance at the Serenity Ballroom. Herb worries about being accepted and learns that Lorna has been interested in another man. At the ballroom Andrew display ostentatious magnanimity. But his effort to patronize Herb comes quickly to an end. Another ex-soldier recognizes him as the fellow who fixed the coffee cups. After an interval inside the ballroom, the satisfactoriness of which we see through the eyes of some bystanders, Herb and Lorna take a rowboat onto the lake while the orchestra plays “Lake Serenity Serenade.” During the encore they make passionate and satisfying love. When they are once more conscious of their surroundings, they see that the ballroom is on fire. Confused, Lorna turns to Herb. “You don’t think that we did that, do you?” she asks him.
The parallel between this event in the rowboat and the earlier incident with Uncle Luther is a typical Kraftian device. The same kind of incident produces alienation in the earlier event and fusion in the later one.
Lorna, with colorful assistance from the May Castle tapes, is shown at a turning point in her life, a point so distinct and final that she must leave Chacallit. To convince Herb, who may not need convincing, she sketches an imaginary picture of life in Chacallit after their marriage. It is another Kraftian parallel, this one resembling the fantasy future of Herb with Tessie and Arthur Harris.
Lorna measures the distance between Chacallit and Boston. Using this distance, she then scribes a circle on the map. She and Herb find meaningful intersections with West Burke, Vermont and Babbington, New York. It can be no secret that they select the latter. Each decides that to finance the move they will return to erotic jewelry and their respective uncles. They do not confide in each other.
At their wedding Herb’s father comes to life. He accepts the sales job that Richard Huber offers and moves to Chacallit where he becomes the best salesman in the organization.
When Herb and Lorna arrive in Babbington, it is dark and wet and they make a questionable impression on the police officer that they encounter at Speedy’s Reliable Service. This is on the corner of Bolotomy and Main. This begins to look like a very crowded intersection since Kraft gives this address for many, many establishments in Babbington.
Their exploration of Babbington is in many ways metaphorical for the exploration of themselves and their life together. Herb has no immediate intention of following his old way of life as a salesman. Instead, he takes a lowly job as a clam culler. His idea is to impress the community, to play a role before it, as a man who rises from lowly work to the more splendid position of salesman. Kraft lets his imagination range fully over the field of business, fascinating object to Kraft both of love and hate. We hear of the Bob Mintner’s overpriced videocassette series You Could Make a Million If You Would Stop Acting Like a Jerk and another title from Professor Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf, Sixty-six Steps to Success – Starting at the Bottom. Herb finds an apartment and Lorna finds Herb his job. The apartment is a tiny room in an older couple’s home. Although they plan to move elsewhere quickly, they stay there five years. Herb makes his way into the community and extends beyond the normal range of his job as a clam culler with his talent as a fixer. Lorna adds to their income by the work she does for a local jeweler. Herb secretly feels uncomfortable with this even though she is skillful at concealment. He resolves on a visit to Uncle Ben.
The oddity of Herb and Lorna – both involved in different aspects of the erotic jewelry art – is that their own lovemaking is restrained and unoriginal. Herb wonders if the movements with which he endows his figures are even possible in the real world and Lorna, unwilling to betray the knowledge she has gained in making her carvings, is – as becomes a stolid Huber – a tame bedfellow. Lorna has seen the new mechanism that Herb has designed. The action that it represents stimulates them both and they try it out with great success but Herb does think – “Where did she learn that?” – what she hoped he would not. This is a very paradoxical situation. Both keep secret their part in the erotic jewelry fabrication and yet the work of each is a sexual stimulation to the other that is breaking down barriers. Irrepressibility of the creative impulse forms a strong motif in Herb ‘n’ Lorna.
Lorna cannot resist Uncle Luther’s request that she carve the figures for Herb’s new mechanism and, representing Luther’s commission very inaccurately, she gains Herb’s consent. To Herb she will be carving “tiny roses, leaves, animals, and the like.”
Herb has told her about Alice Mills and even about the tentative possibilities of Tessie and Arthur Norris. In return she tells him about Andrew Proctor. May Castle’s comment on this kind of folly is withering and she concludes her observations with an appropriate May Castle truism: “Honesty is very dangerous.”
On another level improvement is pronounced although somewhat equivocal. Herb invents and successfully puts into use a new culling table. As reward Garth Castle promotes him to salesman for Babbington Clam. This new job takes him away from Babbington and Lorna for as much as weeks at a time and he suffers greatly but doesn’t know how to deliver himself from this misery. Luckily for him Garth has a plan. Garth will be the manager of a Studebaker agency and he wants Herb to be one of his salesmen.
Dr. Stickler tells Lorna that she is pregnant. At home she and Herb engage in the most frustrating pattern of marital argument, best summarized as the “do-you-mean-that-or-are you-only-saying-it-because-it’s-what-you-think-I-want-to-hear?” Only exhaustion or homicide can end nonsense of this kind.
But they move. Mrs. Mikszath, her landlady, is upset and she confesses that the bedroom activity of Herb and Lorna, clearly audible throughout the house, has given her and Miklos, her husband, great pleasure. To soften the sorrow caused by their departure and to continue the erotic atmosphere that she and Herb have provided, Lorna gives Mrs. Mikszath one of the Watchcase Wonders that Uncle Luther has assembled.
The next step is an interesting narrative device. The author introduces May Castle to the story and May’s own voice cuts across the story. May is delighted to be introduced at last and speaks in so direct a manner that it is difficult to reconcile her interruption with a tape. The effect is startling and very much in the forward nature that characterizes May. She describes how she came to rent the guesthouse to Herb and Lorna and how this began their close friendship. Ella is born while they are living at the guesthouse and Herb quickly becomes a boring father with an inexhaustible supply of ‘cute’ anecdotes.
Although a dragon in the form of an aunt guards May, whose parents died in an accident, she manages to meet and fall in love with Garth Castle. She and Garth and Herb and Lorna are close friends for the next twenty years. Together they visit Chacallit where they endure the venom of Bertha and Clara. Lorna ignores them but May gives battle. May notices with misgivings that Ella gives her affection too easily and too completely. This may explain Ella’s later relationship with the rather sappy Dudley Beaker.
May is so successful in her squelching of the dreadful Bertha that, on the last day of the visit to Chacallit, Bertha repeats her performance of Lorna’s christening party and again over-indulges in potato salad. Awake in the night with the reward of her gluttony, she writes Herb a letter.
Before we learn what is in the letter, we listen to a funny anecdote about the Studebaker agency and watch Garth propose to May. The letter is as poisonous as one would expect and consists of accusing Lorna of sexual misdoings with Uncle Luther. We have, of course, already learned that her accusations are not Lorna’s deeds but her own. Herb does not know this and he draws wrong conclusions and concludes that Lorna’s sexual prowess is the result of Uncle Luther’s abuse of her innocence. He sees her as wronged and as the victim of an unhappy childhood. Therefore he treats her with special tenderness. It is an interesting example of how a good man, protected by the invulnerability of his own innocence, triumphs over evil even though his conclusions are entirely wrong.
This is a short chapter and concerns the almost dalliance between Garth and Lorna and between May and Herb. They come close, prefer fidelity and part without dismay. Herb and Lorna are curious about the sexual behavior of their almost partners in a rather professional way, both of them thinking of their new sexual companions in terms of animated erotic jewelry. Kraft performs a stunning parody of Proust.
As Proust probably says somewhere:
How surprising we find it that, numbered among the many attendants of Love, we do not always find Understanding, the pervasive understanding that we suppose ought to be a prominent member of the procession of Venus. We suppose, and certainly it seems to us perfectly reasonable so to suppose, that love begets, among the many offspring that we suppose it to beget, Understanding, and, so well do we convince herself that in so supposing we are correct, even when we are confronted with contradicting evidence, as a blind man, who, feeling on his face a comforting warmth he takes to be the familiar effect of the sun, walks in the direction he supposes to be sunward and persists in his mistaken belief that he feels on his cheeks not the calescence of terrestrial fire toward which he advances but the radiance of the sun, and still persists even when, at the last instant, benevolent hands prevent him from walking into a heap of flaming fagots.
This chapter is something of an interlude, like the point that Gide noted in The Counterfeiters where the story of a novel, poised at the middle, begins its rapid downhill fall.
Neither Herb nor Lorna have any wish or need to return to erotic jewelry. Until the Depression all goes well but then his business fails. Herb invests in it all that he has and then Studebaker goes into bankruptcy and he realizes that he has done “a foolish Piper thing” as such errors of business judgment are known within the Piper family. Garth suffers more than Herb. On ‘South Beach,’ home of bums and failures and clammies locked out of their homes by their wives, he becomes an alcoholic ruin. Even the effort of Studebaker to recover from its failure has no effect. Herb and the mechanic keep the agency running but there is little money in the operation for anyone. May does all that she knows to rescue Garth but Herb offers to make a last attempt. He shows Garth a Watchcase Wonder and makes him his partner in the sale of them. He thereby entices Garth back into the agency as a cover for the money that Garth will earn from the sale of Watchcase Wonders. To tide them over both Herb and Lorna have returned to erotic jewelry but still conceal their individual actions from each other.
We are not very far into Chapter 13 before we confront a manufactured author and a quotation from her work, Those Fabulous Studes. As we have seen in Little Follies, Kraft manufactures imaginary authors and books with various purposes. They may be used to enrich the text surface with a bit of tinsel, they may be elaborate jokes that Kraft shares with his reader, they may lend verisimilitude to the narrative. But this one, in which Ina Schildkraut decries the taste of the buying public (“Their reaction was the familiar one of half-wits everywhere when confronted with something they don’t understand.”) may come closer to speaking for Kraft than any of the bogus quotes that we have seen so far. As an author he is certainly one that is not understood and is entitled to his moment of bitterness.
Restoration of Garth to a productive life has not cleared up all the difficulties between him and May. Life in the guesthouse for Herb and Lorna becomes burdensome with each of their friends seeking their advice or support. They decide, assisted by money made from erotic jewelry, to buy a home of their own. This takes them to the house on No Bridge Road, familiar to us from Little Follies. The owner is Mrs. Stolz, a widow, anxious to exchange the burdens of house owning for the pleasure of living unconcernedly at the local hotel. The Pipers move in and arrange their nest to its best advantage but the fate of Mrs. Stolz bothers Lorna. She sees life at the hotel as bleak and cold and determines to bring Mrs. Stolz back to her home, not as an owner but as a guest or even as an honorary member of the Piper family.
Impetuously Lorna sweeps up Ella and the entire Piper family visits Mrs. Stolz at the River Sound Hotel. She at first suspects that the Pipers have changed their mind about buying the house and want to give it back to her. She next thinks that they need money and want her to pay them rent. As Lorna explains more the situation grows more complicated. Herb winks and signals to Mrs. Stolz who misinterprets him. She concludes that Lorna is insane and that Herb wants her to come and watch over her. Lorna observes Mrs. Stolz’ confusion and concludes that age has damaged her faculties and that she needs looking after. In this general breakdown of communication Mrs. Stolz compassionately accepts Lorna’s invitation.
Lorna appears to Mrs. Stolz to be, if not really sane, at least calm and she takes credit for this until she snoops and finds out what Lorna is working on at her worktable in the basement. She finds, of course, an erotic carving. This works a curious transformation on Mrs. Stolz who sees herself as the savior of this household and something of a saint. “She became so serene and self-satisfied that her old friends couldn’t stand her anymore.”
It is at the installation of a trick door that Mrs. Stolz formulates her reaction to the Piper household:
[Mrs. Stolz] clapped her hands like a girl. She was really applauding Herb’s compassion. Her heart went out once again to this wonderful man, who put so much effort into building a crazy world for his crazy wife, a world that seemed to have magic in it, a world where doors were hidden in bookcases and drawers lifted their contents when they were opened, a world with nonsense built into it so his wife could feel at home in it, a world with unlikelinesses to match her irrationality, a world where she could feel sane.
This is not a bad description of Kraft’s own approach and rationale.
Kraft now brings Dudley Beaker on stage for his chronological first appearance. He tutors Ella in her studies and she, with the easy way in which she attaches her emotions to any nearby object, develops a crush on him to which he responds. Lorna, Herb and Mrs. Stolz wander outside Dudley’s home in a comically feckless way before Lorna decides that they should return home and call Ella home – and out of danger. Luckily Buster and Bert Leroy appear and divert Ella from Dudley. The boys come to dine with the Pipers and Lorna is flustered by their youth, beauty and vitality. Unable to sleep, she gets up, looks at a magazine and sees charms with movable parts. They are simple in conception and execution. When Herb joins her, they both decide that they could easily surpass everything pictured in the magazine and even make some small charms but they quickly lose interest: the charms are not erotic, not alive.
Ella, Buster and Bert are inseparable during high school. On graduation both boys propose to her and she accepts Buster. Her preference would have been to accept both, a situation which will reappear. On the entrance of the United States into World War II Buster joins the navy and Bert joins the army. Ella writes to both brothers. But in their absence she persuades herself that Buster is truly the preferred and Bert is merely his brother. She does volunteer war work much as her mother had done before her. Herb becomes a plane spotter and, to help other spotters recognize planes quickly, he and Lorna develop a card game of the different planes. The game is called Piper Poker.
Lorna works at the Hargrove Slide Rule plant. She is computing the volume of air in their home on a break when Edwin Berwick interrupts her with questions about her activity. Because he grins constantly she mistakes his grin for one of derision but she soon finds that he is a fellow spirit. He describes his effort to determine the number of grains of sand needed to fill his daughter’s sand box.
“My family thought I was crazy, of course, but once I had begun work, the problem took on a life of its own.”
“The problem became your purpose,’ said Lorna.”
Kraft has again given us a light into his working methods.
The army recruits Lorna as a specialist with the slide rule to go to a base in Maryland where with other similarly gifted women she will calculate artillery trajectories. In this group a number of relevant leisure topics become current conversationally. Lorna tells of her experiences with Uncle Luther and of her erotic carvings. She tells, as often happens, to strangers parts of her life that she has never told any of her intimates. She also carves for her own pleasure and that of her companions erotic figures from soap. All of them in some way resemble Herb and represent her longing for him. The creative venture thus takes reality somewhere into account and gives the work of art a human meaning.
Peter’s world, remember, can do tricks with the little things but the big facts are facts and cannot be escaped or softened (Little Follies, preface to ‘Take the Long Way Home’). Buster’s ship goes down. He is dead. Since Lorna is in Maryland, Herb takes the call from Buster’s father. Ella is asleep and, while she sleeps, he rehearses giving her the awful news, thinking “I hope I can come up with something better . . . when she’s awake.” She does wake but before Herb can tell her the phone rings again. It is for Mrs. Stolz. Her grandson is dead. In the midst of this crisis Herb tells Ella without much fuss or fanfare.
May picks Lorna up at the train station and drives her home. May is uncustomarily depressed. She is growing old and Garth is more burden than solace. Lorna cheers her up as best she can and tells her to go alone to a bar and have a drink to recover her equilibrium. May at first demurs dwelling on the unwholesomeness of women who go to bars alone but at last she goes to Whitey’s and has a good time.
The following night Lorna and May met at Whitey’s and Lorna tells May about the erotic jewelry, showing her a Watchcase Wonder. They speculate about the identity of the mechanical genius that provides the action. Lorna admits that much of her inspiration comes from her sexual encounters with Herb but regrets that these encounters are less frequent than they once were.
Although she succeeded in cheering up May – and May on tape affirms that Lorna’s greatest pleasure was in helping others – she has less success with Ella until she decides that a little reinvolvement with Dudley might serve her purpose. But Dudley is not synchronized to Lorna’s intentions and he comes to visit Lorna while she listens to a soap opera, The Loves of Ellen Burch. In the real world this may have been The Loves of Helen Trent. Although we have seen Kraft’s comedy as essentially classical, there are many scenes in which comic frenzy reigns with rollicking freedom. This is one of those scenes. The interplay of the radio with Dudley and Lorna’s conversation is clever, deft and hilarious. A radio knock on the door is mistaken for a real one and a real knock on the door after the radio has been turned off confuses them. It is Bert Leroy.
Within a month Bert and Ella marry. They move in with Herb and Lorna, taking Mrs. Stolz’ room. To manage this Lorna calls Mrs. Stolz to explain the situation and to determine what the older woman’s plans might be. Mrs. Stolz sees this as an opportunity to break away from the Pipers and to resume her carefree hotel life. To the end, despite the many years that they have lived together, the Pipers and Mrs. Stolz do not understand each other at all.
In the fall Peter Leroy is born.
Bert goes to work at the Studebaker agency and he puts aside a little money consistently to buy a home for his family. Herb and Lorna are as anxious for them to have their own home as they are. Garth finally abandons May. She tells everyone that he died in Baltimore on a business trip. May puts on mourning: “I began dressing in black,” she tells the tape. “Loose, robelike things – quite attractive getups, really. I was a striking sight – sort of Greta Garbo playing Georgia O’Keefe.”
Herb and Lorna understand the wisdom of their decision not to live with Lorna’s parents after they had married because now the strain of Bert and Ella living with them is enormous. They worry that they are inhibiting the young couple’s marital life and know that the young couple is certainly inhibiting their own. They conspire to raise money – in the usual way and still without confiding the secret one to another – and then figure out some way to make Bert take it. It is now more difficult than before. Uncle Luther is seventy-three and nearly blind. Uncle Ben has been dead for eleven years. The maker of the mechanic base is thus no longer Herb and the new maker is a very inferior workman.
But they make the money and Lorna convinces the stubborn Bert that it is appropriate and fitting that he take it. After five years of Bert and Ella and Peter and before that seventeen or so years of Mrs. Stolz, Herb and Lorna are alone. They celebrate by making love in front of the fireplace and Peter remembers past trips for firewood and the celebratory nature of the first fire of the season.
It is noticeable that as the action of the novel continues the action becomes dominant and many underlying meanings, which we have already noted earlier, continue but contribute little that requires additional comment. The text is as rich as before but it is an established richness, not one that is created out of new material.
The Spotter Club continues to meet and to play Piper Poker. Under the influence of Bob Schoop, one of the players, Herb agrees to an investment scheme based on card winnings. The winners give up a share of their winnings and the group invests it. A safe enough scheme on the surface but it turns out to be for Herb a “foolish Piper thing.” Herb sells the members on investing in Studebaker. Studebaker has a short-term success of very respectable proportions. On its strength the members buy stock on their own. But Studebaker stalls and then falls. The competition of the other manufacturers, the big boys of the automotive industry, sweeps Studebaker away. Herb feels responsible. His usual resort – erotic jewelry – is no longer available. He knows nothing about Uncle Ben’s Chacallit contact. Lorna can carve figures but without their being animated her heart isn’t in it and her work is mediocre. Herb has no figures left to sell. The years before them are bleak and ugly.
Lorna’s long-standing addiction to problems in logic sometimes takes bizarre turns. In the one example quoted the problem involves three sisters. Two of them are stupid and ugly and the third, the youngest, is beautiful and intelligent. They have no names in the problem but they are clearly in the imagination of their author Bertha, Clara and Lorna.
Peter’s new friend, Mark Dorset, meets and falls in love with the Glynn twins at a party given at Herb and Lorna’s house since Peter, like any sixteen year old, is ashamed of his parents. The purpose of the party is for Albertine, the love of Peter’s life, to meet his friends. Mark attaches himself to Herb and Lorna with the fixity of a person who perceives in them rare and wonderful traits. With the decline in Studebaker Herb is often home and Lorna, concerned for his welfare, is working less at her job at the slide rule plant. They are thus often home to receive Mark as a visitor and are his confidants in regard to the problem of the Glynn twins. They are in love but as a threesome. At their age and in the then staid condition of society they don’t know what to do.
Mark, a little drunk and very unhappy after actually having seen the twins with other young men, comes to Herb and Lorna. He stays for a couple of hours talking about his hopeless situation. Herb and Lorna are sympathetic and after he leaves awash on the eroticism that his confidences have left behind. Lorna shows Herb a Watchcase Wonder that she has saved. It shows two figures making love in a rowboat. There are explanations all around of course and an upward swing in the life that they have been living.
The discovery that they have made about each other, besides providing a delicious encounter in their bed, points the way out of their financial difficulties.
To leave Babbington for Herb and Lorna is a highly significant act. It partakes something of a Quest. It is not the usual act of retired folk set out on a course of travel and mindless amusement. True, they travel to towns whose names they find amusing or intriguing but they arrive at Punta Cachazuda, Florida, as if to something predestined. It is relevant that the town founder and his wife, Humboldt and Bitsy Bagnell, arrived at Punta Cachazuda after completing their own tour of the country by trailer. When Herb and Lorna move into their home, the first one in the new addition to the town, they are allowed to name the street. Lorna chooses No Bridge Road. Although they are a part of the community, their adhesion is not whole-hearted. They are still living a great part of their lives – that involved with erotic jewelry – in secret.
Mark Dorset graduates from college and Herb and Lorna invite him and the Glynn twins to visit them in Punta Cachazuda. Martha ends the impasse that they have been facing and insists that Mark become engaged to Margot. At the last meal that the guests will have on their visit to Herb and Lorna there is a Kraftian mix-up. Herb and Lorna have a gift for them, a piece of erotic jewelry involving a threesome, and Mark and Margot have their engagement to announce. Although the gift is clearly inappropriate, Herb continues to present it until Lorna stops him. Much of Kraft’s comedy arises from missed connections and misunderstandings. From the original Huber in the early pages of the book – found as the reader will remember to be a thief after his death – and the entry of Herb into the Piper living room in Chacallit to this situation in the novel’s last chapter we have seen this trait developed and exploited in countless ways. The secrecy of Herb and Lorna with each other is the great overriding example of this device.
Herb and Lorna are unable any longer to conceal their gift. They first tell their friends the Coglianos about the erotic jewelry and then they begin to give classes. These are a success and enrollment increases to the point where local secrecy at least is no longer possible. Herb has a heart attack and seems to have recovered but Lorna returns home to find that he is dead in his chair. Lorna returns to Babbington and repurchases her old house on No Bridge Road. She has cancer.
Mark Dorset, Margot and Martha visit her and reminisce about their visit in Punta Cachazuda. Lorna asks probing questions about their present relationship and they tell her how things have worked out amongst them. The story they tell is funny. Mark is a worrier and, like all worriers, difficult to live with. When Margot had as much of this as she could stand she left him. But Martha took her place until she too found living with a worrier unendurable. In this way the women changed off and preserved the love of all parties involved and lightened the burden of Mark’s character for Mark.
Lorna gives them the gift that she had intended to give them in Punta Cachazuda. They examine it and find that it frees them from their timidities and changes their lives.
Lorna dies. May, whose voice has been less frequent in the closing part of the book, both mourns and celebrates her friend’s death. Lorna did not outlive her faculties. Death can never be pleasant but senility is obscene.
Kraft closes the book with a description of Punta Cachazuda, flowering in diverse ways from the practice of erotic art. It is a tribute to Herb and Lorna.
If the average novel’s length is around two hundred pages, this is a longer than average novel. Kraft’s story goes from before the birth of his protagonists to their death and a little beyond. There is little sense of omission. It is not, as young Peter found of the Larry Peter’s series, more interesting between than within the chapters. Life abounds and is affirmed in ways that are ingenious and command the reader’s attention.
There is a meaningful use of the unexpected to express Kraft’s intentions with gently urged point. His obsession with Studebakers is an excellent example of this. With the best will in the world and a designer of genius the Studebaker Company could not succeed in a country where taste is depraved. It is significant that the dull if generous Andy Proctor did not own a Studebaker and that Kraft would go slightly out of his way to let the reader know this.
The chief characters are Herb and Lorna and they are built up of many small touches cleverly and unobtrusively applied. These touches bridge time and fuse its distinctions so that Kraft convinces us that we are intimately acquainted with his characters. He showed this ability to some degree in Little Follies and he will show it in greater and lesser degree in his subsequent books.
For more information, visit:
Herb ‘N’ Lorna: A Love Story
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: