Norris' 'Virgin': still an adolescent

May 13, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

"The Virgin of Bennington," by Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books. 256 pages. $24.95.

For readers of Kathleen Norris, the best-selling author of "Amazing Grace" and other works of spiritualist nonfiction, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that in "The Virgin of Bennington," Norris' new coming-of-age memoir, a handful of characters come to life in her strained, self-conscious prose.

Dartmouth frat boys prowl the halls of her women's dorm hollering, "Does anybody want to screw?" and a few, as a study break, do. A dissipated professor, Norris' first male lover, leaves the stench of whisky and tobacco in the wake of their affair. A smart and dogged mentor takes Norris under her wing when the author graduates from the privileged college she cites in the title. They're zealous, dissipated, selfish and kind -- in other words, people from whom you can learn something, even when they don't play by the rules.

The bad news is how little time we get to spend in their company and how much we must spend with the self-important musings of a woman who, though in her 50s by the time she writes "Virgin," still sees the world -- be it New York, New Hampshire or South Dakota -- as if it were fodder for some celestial entrance exam in which she still might get the highest score.

Let's get this straight. Norris, a naive, middle-class teen, was scared, withdrawn and miserable in her days at Bennington College. She didn't seek those conditions in order to affirm her independence, to contemplate the universe in solitude or to fixate on her beloved "literature." She did it because she was an outsider, a geek looking for a way to make loneliness seem voluntary.

If only Norris faced some facts -- for one, that she's still an adolescent -- this might have been a better, more honest book. Instead, euphemizing her way through 250 pages of gratuitously flowery language, she leaves readers grasping for anything -- anything at all -- that's tangible, fun or in any sense real.

The problem is clearest when she lets others speak. Betty Kray, for example, was a woman who spent her life trying to rustle up interest in, and support for, poetry in New York. She led literary walks through the city, brought readers into elementary-school classrooms, offered plain-speaking advice to would-be poets and gave Norris a job.

This woman edited the extraneous from her life, a life she actively decided was to be spent helping others. When Norris unexpectedly gets a book of poems published at an early age, Kray keeps her honest with salt-of-the-earth talk and actual tasks to complete. By the end of "Virgin," we feel we've met a vivid personality and learned that poetry lives in the real world, not in the minds of a few exalted eggheads.

That personality, sad to say, is not the author's. The title Norris chooses hints that the book depicts an ongoing loss of virginity, a slow acclimation to life. She does literally lose her virginity at Bennington, but the rest of the time, it's her mentor who keeps peeling back the layers of truth and keeping it real.

Betty Kray, unlike the author, knew how to look in the mirror with her own two eyes, for better and worse, and to like what she saw. Now that's adulthood.

Jonathan Pitts is in his second year as a features writer for The Sun. He is co-author of a memoir of Whitey Herzog, "You're Missing a Great Game" (Simon and Schuster, 1999), and previously taught English at the Gunnery School in Connecticut and at the University of Iowa.

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