Carol Shields' 'Party': What is a man?

September 21, 1997|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Larry's Party," by Carol Shields. Viking. 306 pages. $22.95.

Fans of Carol Shields' 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Stone Diaries," will not be disappointed by her new novel. Again Shields celebrates the ordinary with the cool, bemused, good-natured tone that won her so much praise two years ago.

Yet, while "The Stone Diaries" explored the condition and experiences of women in the 20th century - women beleaguered, confused, aggressive, retiring and fulfilled - "Larry's Party" returns repeatedly to the question of what it is like to be an ordinary man in North America at the end of our millennium.

The insight Shields offers amounts to little more than that sensitive men often feel simply like they are " ... just walking, talking envelopes designed to contain [their] paltry store of genetic tissue." They are tired of being buffoons and the butt of jokes and have been forced to walk on eggshells around women since about 1980.

But how ordinary is Larry Weller, the 47-year-old hero Shields has chosen to embody the run-of-the-mill male? After an utterly uneventful lower middle-class childhood in Winnipeg, Canada, and with grades that qualified him for little else, Larry entered Floral Arts School. He arranged flowers for 14 years before reluctantly becoming the manager of a florist shop.

On a honeymoon tour of England, he finds his true passion: shrubs and garden mazes. His hobby of designing mazes soon develops into an astonishingly successful career, complete with an apprenticeship under a world-famous landscape architect, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate. Along the way, he suffers two divorces and has a son.

Even though Larry remains a bland figure throughout the novel, Shields recounts his tale very skillfully. The chapters are ordered chronologically and thematically and are filled with flashbacks to Larry's childhood and his parents' past. Discourses on "Larry's Friends," "Larry's Work," "Larry's Kid," even on "Men Called Larry," alternate with daily events past and present so that the reader effortlessly forms a complete, if not gripping picture of Larry's inner and outer lives.

However, mazes and words, rather than the metaphysics of maleness, are this novel's true themes. Mazes, of course, are a metaphor for "the difficulty of life and life's tortuous spiritual journey." Yet Larry, who can find his way through a maze with instinctive ease stumbles through life, clutching at words in his search for meaning. If only he had a larger vocabulary, he thinks, life would be much clearer.

Larry's true encounter with his self takes place neither in a maze nor through an expanding vocabulary, but during a party organized by his new girlfriend. When his two ex-wives, his girlfriend, his sister and her boyfriend, a Spanish horticulturalist, and a wealthy maze patron and drunken wife gather at Larry's dinner table, he suddenly realizes he loves them all, especially his first wife.

Larry and his masculinity, it turns out, are essentially defined by the others in his life - exactly the condition from which feminism has struggled to liberate women.

Tess Lewis writes articles for the Hudson Review, the Partisan Review, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution among others. She was Managing Editor of Persea Books in New York.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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