Blue in Chicago

Bette Howland

Picador, £12.99

Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March begins thus: “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.”

Bellow was writing about a man fuelled by propulsive energy and a ferocious ego. Yet those opening lines also apply to one of Bellow’s most talented yet retiring proteges, the short story writer and memoirist Bette Howland.

A fellow Chicagoan, more than 20 years his junior, Howland had an occasional relationship with Bellow after the collapse of his third marriage, followed by a life-long friendship.

To discuss Bellow as a preamble to Howland is in some ways to perpetuate the injustice done to her down the years. While contemporaries such as Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates went on to become internationally acclaimed, Howland, though equally gifted, has all but faded from the scene.

Howland’s fading presence could be ascribed in part to her lack of confidence. One of her sons described her as exceptionally “tentative” about her writing, even though, he recalled, “She typed more than a hundred words a minute, firing her Selectric day and night through my childhood like a machine gun.”

The divorced mother of two boys, Howland spent most her life struggling to make ends meet. To supplement her income she worked as a freelance editor and as a librarian – one of the funniest stories in Blue in Chicago is about a loud but kindly librarian whose voice grates on the down and outs using the library as a refuge – but writing was her calling.

By 1983 she had produced three books, her memoir W-3, and the story collections Blue in Chicago and Things to Come and Go. She seemed destined for success, but after winning the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, never published again. Her son believes the pressure of living up to expectation was too much.

Until last year, when a collection of stories, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, was published in the USA, Howland had been consigned to the past. Picador’s edition of this collection, with a more evocative title, reintroduces a writer whose tinderbox wit and vivid prose are intensely modern and fresh.

The downbeat and crime-ridden Chicago about which Howland mostly writes is long gone. She lived there for almost 40 years from her birth in 1937, but her understanding of how people think, and in particular the way in which families and couples interact, is not bound by time or place.

Howland’s eye is that of a camera. She sees the things most folk are in too much of a rush to notice. In one story, To the Country – echoing Chekhov in its unrealised, and unrealistic yearning to escape – she describes an ailing cat in a rush hour subway station, around which people solicitously step.

They wouldn’t take such care with a beggar or drunk, who would barely catch anyone’s attention. As for the countryside, it’s where people like her go for their holidays, daydreaming of a permanent move they know will never happen.

Lake Michigan, with its holiday cottages, represents much more than fresh air and space: it is an ideal, an idyll, somewhere reassuringly permanent. Hence the shock when things change between visits: “In other words, life out here goes on – industriously. And it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to stop, to hold still for us. Everyone knows that. Isn’t that the proper definition of life in the country?”

Rural America is not Howland’s scene. That is Chicago, best evoked in the title story, whose keen observation, and powerful undertow of alienation and inadequacy, encapsulate all the elements that make her voice distinctive.

The author, or her alter ego, is joining mother, grandmother, cousins, for a family wedding. Comedy sparks on every page but so does something sadder. The narrator stubbornly refuses to leave her shabby district and is braced for the reaction: “All you have to do is say ‘Chicago’. At once the conversation turned to crime.” This supposedly joyous occasion allows her to see her uncle in a new and sympathetic light.

Evoking a man of few words, and possibly even fewer emotions, Howland portrays one man’s stultification and his stoical endurance in the face of the implacable dullness of his existence.

The strangest, most haunting story, is German Lessons, an almost gothic slice of single motherhood in a foreign country. It revolves around a young woman called Kitty, a mouse-like wife who is almost Amish in her simplicity: “the sort of face you wouldn’t be surprised to find hiding under a poke bonnet”. She has followed her husband, who is in the armed forces, to Germany, but is boarding miles from him, all but estranged.

German Lessons is a picaresque description of two unhappy marriages: that of Kitty, but also her sweet-natured landlady, whose husband is, we are led to infer, a brute.

There are, as in all these stories, some terrific lines – “She breathed with an air of doing her duty”, “His coat hung on his back the way it hung on the hook in the hall” – yet overall it is unsatisfactory, the writing more brilliant than the story.

That could be said of several of the pieces here which, for all their verve, feel open-ended, not entirely complete, missing some indefinable element that would elevate them into the first rank.

What they lack, perhaps, is the insistence of a writer demanding attention. And yet, the defining feature of Howland’s work is its readability. Readers will warm to her quickly. A natural entertainer, she is a companionable presence who opens windows on her world, without drawing too much attention to herself.

If lack of confidence really was Howland’s Achilles heel, it would not be entirely surprising. In the 1970s and 80s, American literary and academic society was a snake pit. Women, no matter how able, were invariably treated as inferior.

The sociologist Edward Shils helped diminish Howland, calling her Bellow’s “working-class queen”.

Bellow’s biographer James Atlas, describes Howland as “a stocky woman with a pock-marked face”, although photos show her as warmly attractive, stylish and slim.

Nor does he mention that when Howland tried to kill herself in 1968 by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills, she did so in Bellow’s apartment, while he was away.

Trying to lift her spirits, Bellow wrote to her in the psychiatric hospital: “As for writing (your writing) I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.”

Who knows whether Howland took the advice, but Blue in Chicago lives up to its title, as did its troubled author.