Legends of Troy
INTERVIEW:Alice Fulton's new stories are set in her hometown of Troy, New York, where four generations of a fictional Irish American family unfold in a decaying part of America that tourists never see These streets, once familiar to Fulton, now make her nervous. No wonder, writes Anna Mundow
FOR AN ACCLAIMED poet, fiction writer and Cornell University professor, Alice Fulton is surprisingly considerate. She urges me to eat another muffin, drink more iced tea before we set off to explore Troy, New York, her hometown. She thanks me again for coming here even though hers has been the far longer journey. Fulton has returned to show me the sites depicted in her sublime new short-story collection, The Nightingales of Troy, which portrays four generations of the fictional Irish-American Garrahan family.
She responds plainly, modestly, to praise of her fiction which has been compared to that of Alice Munro, Grace Pailey, Annie Proulx. But she prefers to talk about the past; about the Callahan ("Garrahan") women who inspired her short stories, about the dashing father and vivacious mother who was "the first in the family to go astray by marrying a divorced, Protestant bootlegger, 15 years older than she" and who, at 95, is still cared for by her daughters.
We briefly peruse photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings, many depicting her father's entertainment ventures: the Phoenix Hotel, the Rainbow Gardens, the Ship of Joy, names that conjure up the muted wail of a 1930s dance band. Then a surprise. "It's today," Fulton says, handing me a page from the Troy Record for July 3rd, 1919. "It happened ninety-nine years ago today."
That is strange. The day on which we choose to meet is the date on which Fulton's great-grandmother drowned in the city canal. "It was a perfect night: calm and desolate," Fulton writes in Queen Wintergreen, imagining the fictional Peg Flynn's last moments, "she sat down on the bank, dangling her feet over the darkness like a girl . . . easing herself into the state waterway, which at first felt coldly foreign, then as her skirts turned to fetters, warmer, more familiar".
As we leave the hotel room, which happens to be called the "Fulton Suite" (no relation), I begin to suspect that pretty, slight Alice Fulton attracts echoes.
Outside, the day has settled into sullen heat relieved by a breeze from the Hudson River. Within minutes we cross what was the canal, now paved over, and suddenly I hear high-pitched cries, the sound of splashing water.
Before I can mention this, the explanation materialises: a public swimming pool filled with shrieking children. The first ghost is behind us, but there are more to come.
"Troy is where love comes to die," one of Fulton's characters remarks, but that indictment seems trite. With its magnificent 19th century mill buildings and brownstone mansions, its faded working-class neighbourhoods, Troy is certainly part of the decayed America that foreign tourists - and many Americans - never see. (Another Fulton character refers to "skiers in SUVs rushing through gritty Troy to quaint Vermont"). When we reach the hillside neighbourhood where Fulton's grandmother lived, however, and survey the lush valley below, we are looking at layers of invention: from the Palaeo-Indians, Dutch then English settlers, through the Industrial Revolution, the great canals, steamships, locomotives, to the detachable shirt collar that is said to have made this city.
Nineteenth-century Troy may have looked like salvation to Peg Flynn who, in Fulton's moving story, recalls Ireland as " . . . a bad luck country where people were sent to dine on rocks and hope". On leafy Bog Road, we pass a derelict farmhouse, perhaps the one in which Fulton's mother was born, then the granite orphanage where, in the story Happy Dust, Mamie Garrahan observes of the Mercy sisters, "Nuns always want some little selfless thing in exchange for their favours, I find. God's the same way when you think about it."
As a child, Alice Fulton did not take to nuns or, indeed, to God. Last week, however, a nun who once taught the little atheist attended Fulton's book signing. "I was so moved," Fulton recalls. "She held my hand and said 'We failed you, Alice.' Because I seemed so unhappy back then, I suppose." That serious, sensitive girl appears as Ruth Livingston in The Real Eleanor Rigby, set in 1966. "Ruth Livingston was the loneliest girl in North America," the story begins. "She was the only Catholic High student who subscribed to Zen Teen, the Journal of Juvenile Macrobiotics . . . the only member of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin who'd read Tropic of Cancer." Euphoria arrives when Ruth wins tickets to a Beatles concert and even meets her idols, although not in the same way that Alice Fulton met John and George when she was a radio DJ in the 1970s. But that is another story; we're not there yet.
Back in downtown Troy, relics of the city's heyday endure: the Public Library with its Tiffany windows; the ornate Proctor's Theatre; the Frear Building, once Troy's swankiest department store, where two Garrahan sisters both find romance. "We was all after the same life," the narrator in Dorothy Meets Maleman explains, "beginning with a nice fellow and ending with a baby or at least a baby leopard coat. We had luxurious dreams, yet we was raised respectable." The antique notion of respectability pervades one of Fulton's finest stories, The Glorious Mysteries, which recreates a camphor-and-antimacassar world that could be Dublin in the 1950s. Two Garrahan spinsters, Min and Bess, along with their niece, Charlotte, prepare for the wake of their sister, Lou. "Louise had been sweet-tempered but homely as a hedge fence," Charlotte observes, " . . . pools of wrinkles widened out over her face like somebody had thrown a pebble in it." When Bess reveals that Lou wanted to be laid out in "that dress" - a stunning creation with a tiny collar of mouse fur - the three women scramble for a compromise between loyalty and decency. The dilemma and its resolution are worthy of Frank O'Connor.
On rundown 7th Avenue, we stop outside the modest end-row house where Min, Bess and Lou lived, respectably. It looks neglected. These streets, once familiar to Fulton, now make her nervous. No wonder. "When I last visited The Phoenix it was a crack house," she says. In the story L'Air du Temps, the defiled hotel is described as "Dark. Really dark. With bottles, syringes, and graffiti everywhere. There was nobody at the desk, and somebody yelled down, Who are youse looking for? Then a big burly guy appeared. He opened a drawer full of guns and knives. I was thinking, if we get to choose our weapons, I'll choose grammar."
Today The Phoenix is a shelter for substance abusers. We don't go in. The Rainbow Gardens? It is now Trojan Electronics. To the river, then, where the Ship of Joy, the Fulton floating nightclub offered "regular people a night on the Hudson" but sank in 1935. As we walk along the riverbank, today's regular people shuffle in and out of the Off Track Betting shop in the potholed car park. "It's hard to imagine all that glamour and optimism," Fulton says, studying the Hudson's brown water, then turning with a smile. "I guess that's where I come in." We eat a picnic lunch, appropriately, in the vast 19th century Oakwood Cemetery: 400 acres of woodland, waterfalls, and, of course, memory. In Fulton's affecting story, If It's Not Too Much to Ask, the now adult Ruth Livingston witnesses her mother's memory being wiped clean by dementia. "They said time healed all wounds," Ruth laments, "but it shouldn't have healed this much. Time had gone too far."
Dwindling Annie Garrahan, for her part, observes with wonder that "Memory makes everything happen at once." Alice Fulton knows that feeling only too well.
The Nightingales of Troy: Stories of One Family's Century by Alice Fulton is published by WW Norton & Co this month, $23.95