It’s a perfect day to read this story. A low, Congo fog lies over the city and trees beyond my balcony, a storm having just swept past and out to sea. The occasional sullen rumble of thunder still rolls out from the overcast sky, and the world seems quiet, pensive, still.
“The Last Lovely City” by Alice Adams recounts an afternoon spent by a widowed, elderly doctor at a party just north of San Francisco. Invited by Carla, a much younger acquaintance of a few weeks, Dr. Benito Zamora impulsively agrees to accompany her. Alice Adams portrays Benito at first as a great and altruistic doctor, bereaved and sorrowing, and we accordingly warm to him, but as the tale progresses and his past becomes clear, a different man emerges, and that I believe is the source of this story’s brilliance.
A subtle self loathing runs throughout Benito’s narrative. Glancing at his hands early on, he thinks of them as ‘old beggar’s hands’, and he strongly dislikes being called by his nick-name, Dr. Do-Good, earned for funding two large, free clinics in Chiapas, Mexico with the fortune he made in his youth. This fortune is a source of disquiet, a point that is highlighted when a bloated ex-lover he runs into at the party asks him mockingly, “You must come back and tell me how you made all that money, Dr. Do-Good.” The doctor flushes, and turns stiffly away. Stepping outside, he pauses to reflect on his life:
It is hardly surprising, he now thinks – with a small, wry, private smile – that he ended in bed with Dolores Gutierrez, and that a few years later he found himself the owner of many sleazy blocks of hotels in the Tenderloin.
But that is not how he ended up, the doctor tells himself, in a fierce interior whisper. He ended up with Elizabeth, who was both beautiful and good, a serious woman, with whom he lived harmoniously, if sometimes sadly (they had no children, and Elizabeth was given to depression), near St. Francis Woods, in a house with a view of everything – the city and the sea, the Farllon Islands.
I find the contrast between that ‘small, wry, private smile’ and the ‘fierce interior whisper’ fascinating. An almost Gollum-esque dualism, a conflict that is at the source of his self-loathing and memory haunted present. For he is playing a powerful game of denial and self deception. He did not transition from being a sleazy hotel owner to being the husband of a good woman, as he likes to recall: he was both simultaneously, and kept both worlds distinct. He made sure that his wife never knew about his business deals, and that he himself knew as little as possible as to what went on in the hotels, though he had, he admits, his suspicions.
As the story progresses, the doctor begins to fantasize about Carla. He speculates as to her reasons for inviting him to the party, and wonders if their age difference is too great for them to become amorously involved. Unwelcome memories of his past and his debilitating loneliness cause him to grow almost desperately enamored of her, and he fantasizes about how their relationship will revive his moribund life. Walking along the beach, he resolves to answer her questions about his past honestly, and admits to having done business with another of the party guests, the loathsome Herman Tolliver who was his partner in the acquisition of the hotels in Tenderloin.
It is then that the ugly truth comes out: Carla, a reporter, reveals how she had investigated Tolliver and discovered how his hotels were used as brothels for pre-teen Asian girls. She then innocently admits to being engaged with the host’s son, and Benito’s fantasy collapses.
The sun has sunk into the ocean, and Benito’s heart has sunk with it, drowned. He shudders, despising himself. How could he possibly have imagined, not have guessed?
He resolves to move back to Mexico, to live close to his clinics, and spend the rest of his life being of what assistance he can to them. But it is a mere escape, an escape from himself, his history, and the city that embodies both.
The first time I read this story I breezed right through it, enjoying the descriptions, the interactions, the rich prose and large interior world of the doctor. It was only during my second read that more became evident, the doctor’s psychology prefigured in the first words, hinted at in every encounter, thought, description. This is a tightly wound story, obeying Poe’s maxim that every word have a purpose and contribute to the whole. The dialogue is natural, but further examination one realizes that each line reveals a new facet of a character. Nothing is spurious, said for effect.
I am greatly reminded of Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’. A social event, a flawed protagonist that is ignorant of his own psychology, a source of affection that reveals a different allegiance, and a sense of aporia at the end in which the protagonist fails to conquer but instead sinks into reflection and melancholy.
This is how ‘The Last Lovely Place’ ends:
Half hearing her, the doctor is wrestling with the idea of a return to the city, which is suddenly unaccountably terrible to him; he dreads the first pale romantic view of it from the bridge, and then the drive across town to his empty house, after dropping Carla of on Telegraph Hill. His house with its night views of city hills and lights. But he braces himself with the thought that he won’t be in San Francisco for long this time. That as soon as he can arrange things he will be back in Chiapas, in Mexico. For the rest of his life.
And thus he manages to walk on, following Carla past the big, fancy house, for sale – and all those people, the house’s rich and crazily corrupt population. He manages to walk across the sand toward his car, and the long, circuitous, and risky drive to the city.
And here is the ending to ‘The Dead’:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
There is a resonance. Two men, gazing out across an imagined vista, realizing that they have been mistaken about their lives, and their understanding of the world. Two men resolving to travel, to escape, to flee towards an enervating distance in which to sublimate their troubles and escape their failures.
I really enjoyed Alice Adams’s short story. It was well written, intricate and rewarding. It was a pleasure to watch my own understanding of Benito change, not just in the first reading, but again and more thoroughly in the second, the final revelation prefigured in the earlier descriptions right up to the very first few lines. The story is like an old, archaic clock, a homogenous whole from a distance, but resolving itself into an intricate collection of intersecting cogs and gears when opened up and peered at with close attention.
Richard Ellman on ‘The Dead’:
The tone of the sentence, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward,’ is somewhat resigned. It suggests a concession, a relinquishment, and Gabriel is conceding and relinquishing a good deal… all those tepid but nice distinctions on which he has prided himself. The bubble of his self-possession is pricked; he no longer possesses himself, and not to possess oneself is in a way a kind of death.
In similar manner, Benito Zamora relinquishes his sense of self at the end of ‘The Last Lovely Place’. He relinquishes the distinction between the man who owned the sordid hotels and the husband of Elizabeth. Disarmed by the concatenation of his wife’s death, memories stirred to life by the party’s guests and his own failed fantasy for Carla, he resolves to go to Mexico, to abdicate from his now empty life in San Francisco, and wait to die while helping the ill at his clinics.
Interesting that a criticism of one story could be so helpful in understanding another!