Duke University Alumni Magazine

Illustration by David Terry A.M. '89, Ph.D. '95

It Had to Be You: The Joan and Ernest Story

By Melissa Malouf. Greensboro: Avisson Press, 1997. 169 pp. $25.

f you read the first couple dozen pages of this sad but witty tale too fast, you might get swept into the narrative before you realize how carefully the author has laid the groundwork for treating her subjects with sympathy. Melissa Malouf, associate professor of the practice of English at Duke, creates a touching context for the struggle between her title characters whose marriage is, as the jacket gaily points out, "not made anywhere in the vicinity of heaven."

     Both Ernest and Joan come honestly by a jaded and even cynical romanticism long before they meet, damaged by the self-absorption and philandering of the role models around them. She comes of professional stock and he of working class origins, but both are equally well-taught by their parents' example and proscriptions to reveal nothing of themselves to others. They share a desire not to share, not to let things matter too much.

     "Omnia vincit amor," cracks a visitor in Joan's childhood home, and though she sees that "in the small man's sorry eyes something was worse than wrong," Joan too will grow up to see love conquered by everything--lust, misunderstanding, convenience, violence. In one painful scene, her glamorous mother leads

     little Joan through a windy night, singing "S'Wonderful" and carelessly squeezing Joan's hand until, one by one, her knuckles break while the child remains silent, afraid to shatter the spell of this rare maternal affection. Later, her mother hires a male prostitute to instruct Joan in the ways of love. Inevitably, he turns out to have the most genuinely romantic soul of anyone in the book. "Without romance," he tells her, "we are nothing." They fall in love; Joan drops him; he is murdered.

     Ernest, who grows up in a house where "the radio does all the talking," is taken aside at age twelve by a father who wants to teach him the secret of his success with women: his voice. He sings, croons, sweeps all before him with a creamy baritone "full of kept promises" that makes even Ernest love him too much. But they are discovered, and Ernest learns he must "never ever reveal a secret if there was the slightest chance that a woman would get a hold of it." His disenchanted mother flees to Paris and the arms of another woman; his father contracts oral cancer and loses his ability to speak, except in a robotic monotone. The father warns Joan during her courtship that Ernest wants a mother, not a wife. Then he dies during their honeymoon, and orders his ashes to be mixed into the punch at his wake.

     With such inauspicious underpinnings, what kind of marriage could Ernest and Joan possibly make? Ernest becomes increasingly taciturn, obscene, consumed with lust, on the edge of violence. As a joke, he nearly smothers Joan with a pillow. After they argue, he heads for the desert to shoot rattlesnakes. While his wife is off having an abortion, he guts pregnant fish. Joan, for her part, takes up with friends who are persistent talkers, including a ditzy New Age fribble who eventually becomes Ernest's clandestine lover. For an anniversary treat, Joan suggests taking a couple of days off to attend the celebrated murder trial of a stranger.

     No matter how emotionally wracked they become, neither ever has anything substantive to declare, least of all to each other. When a friend dies, Joan drives his widow to the funeral because "driving is what Joan could do; it had to take the place of other things, like talking." Ernest tells a friend, "Knowing the right time to crumble. That's the trick." But he never crumbles, and throughout his life vulgarity remains a shield for his grief.

     Though Ernest seems to fare worse at the hands of the author's cutting mockery, occasionally shading into caricature (one chapter begins, "Joan wants to finish decorating the Christmas tree. Ernest wants to get laid."), Malouf rarely takes sides, keeping the erotic and narrative tension afloat with balance and tact. At bottom, we never forget that her characters are co-conspiritors, perpetuating their own suffering. Appropriately, Malouf's prose embodies a narrative spareness that borders on parsimony, a desire to eliminate everything not crucial to her infrastructure, and a lean equanimity characterized by a refusal to editorialize, condemn, or gloss over.

     Like the novel itself, every chapter is named, tongue-in-cheek, after a famous torch song. But Malouf's prose could hardly be less like the purple lyrics her characters grow up with and invoke, sometimes bitterly. Her dialogues are terse, suggestive, and clear: One admires the craft behind this writing, even when the humor wears a little thin.

     And while the humor of this literary fiction is more dark than light, as the author said in a recent radio interview, one comes away from it suspecting that both it and her equanimity are founded on a bedrock of compassion.

--Paul Baerman

Baerman M.B.A. '90 is director of administration for the Durham-based software startup company Easy Access.

Back from the Brink: The Greenspan Years

By Steven K. Beckner '74. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996. 452 pages. $29.95.

his is a book about the actions of a particular committee and its chairman, and the subject lends considerable importance to the treatment. This is no ordinary voting body but the seven governors of the Federal Reserve System, based in Washington, D.C., plus the chairman of the Fed and five presidents of the twelve district Federal Reserve Banks, who serve on a rotating basis. The voting members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) determine interest rates and thereby affect our lives quite directly.

     The Federal Reserve System, or Fed, is the nation's central bank. Not only does it have power to set interest rates but it also has regulatory authority over the nation's many commercial banks. It is widely accepted that the Fed should so control the growth of "money" as to facilitate healthy economic growth, but without any inflationary buildup.

     If the FOMC determines that inflationary forces are gathering strength, it may elect to tighten credit. This it does by reducing the volume of reserve funds in the banking system and by raising the rate at which it is prepared to meet the emergency reserve needs of member banks caught in the squeeze. All of us with variable rate debt obligations or a need to borrow quickly feel the impact: Credit card accommodation costs more, as do mortgages, perhaps auto loans, and so on.

     The pain thus inflicted to deal a blow to present inflation, or to get rid of potential inflation in pre-emptive fashion, may be severe, and there is always some risk that a recession may be precipitated. This pain and risk must be weighed against the costs of letting inflation go uncurbed. Inflation has painful consequences of its own; these, moreover, express themselves far more insidiously than do restrictive moves by the Fed. They also have somewhat arbitrary distorting effects on incentives and the distribution of purchasing power: Wage earners tend to suffer, as do those on fixed incomes; debtors (including the federal government) are advantaged while savers are penalized; and investments tend to become biased in favor of quick returns. We have experienced all this in relatively mild form and for short periods in the late Sixties, the late Seventies, and the late Eighties. Ordinary Russians, Brazilians, residents of Zaire, and others have suffered more dramatically from bouts of hyper-inflation in the recent past.

     Despite the importance to us of these matters of fact, they are frequently deemed too arcane to master. Steven Beckner '74 deals a blow to that prejudice; he has a talent for making the workings of the Fed palatable and understandable, without cutting corners. His expertise on monetary policymaking, and his expository skills, are widely appreciated by professionals in the financial markets and by listeners of National Public Radio. In Back from the Brink, his focus is on the decisions taken by the FOMC over the decade starting in 1987. A reason for this concentration is Beckner's own abhorrence of inflation. For much of the period the FOMC's decisions were directed at beating back inflation, and slaying the inflation dragon is thus the real theme of this book. Even the title reflects the author's conviction that the fight might easily have been lost or meekly conceded, with consequences as mentioned above, or possibly even worse.

     The FOMC's chairman, and the head of the whole Federal Reserve System during the decade covered, was Alan Greenspan. Greenspan has made it his personal mission to eliminate inflationary tendencies from the economy, no enviable task at a time when budget deficits forced the Fed to fight with one hand tied. Members of the FOMC have not always shared Greenspan's single-minded commitment to ridding the economy of inflationary tendencies, nor have they all always agreed with his insistence on rooting out inflationary expectations before inflation itself shows up in the statistics.

     Various administrations have shared his general philosophy but dissented on the timing and strength of anti-inflation moves, U.S. presidents generally preferring to inflict no immediate harm. The same present-mindedness is dominant in Congress, while the business community and financial markets generally find higher interest rates distasteful. Hence, Greenspan has had to persuade colleagues, presidents (Bush and Clinton), members of the business and financial communities, and large numbers in Congress, time and again, that higher interest rates now are necessary for the continued economic health of the nation.

     Some of the most interesting sub-themes in this book are those elaborating upon these tensions. Though not a biography, the book also contains fascinating glimpses into the personal accommodations chairman Greenspan has had to make, as he undertook interventions to guard against downside risk to the world financial system--interventions at odds with his libertarian principles.

     The immediate story line, however, is the discount-rate decisions taken by the FOMC. The author's method is to identify the persons most involved and the positions most relevant, whether these were espoused inside or outside the Fed itself. The result is a very detailed, close-up account, replete with contemporary and retrospective commentary by those who made the running at the time. This approach creates a sense of immediacy and works particularly well for crises, and there are elegant and revealing discussions of the October 1987 stock market plunge(s), the savings and loan crisis, and the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-95. It also works well where the narrator pauses briefly to explore some particular source of dissensźion: whether there was or was not a "credit crunch" in late 1989 and early 1990; the extent to which the Fed can and should take account of currency volatility and the strength of the dollar in pursuing its primary domestic goals; whether the Fed should be forced into public disclosure of the minutes and notes made during FOMC meetings.

     Concerning the inflation fight in general, successive rounds of which are described throughout the book, I found myself wishing that some historical charts had been included. My own preference in any case is to isolate and connect particular themes or episodes. I did not take full advantage of the author's chronological rendering, and I paid a penalty, since Beckner makes no concession to the non-sequential reader: There is only an occasional reminder as to which year one is in.

     Whether read sequentially, however, or dipped into for one's own particular reasons, the book is a marvelous resource. Beckner has assembled details, but his very special strength is in refraining from introducing or attempting to explain technicalities out of context.

--Neil De Marchi

De Marchi, an economics professor at Duke, currently writes on the history of art and stock markets.

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