Parke Godwin’s _A Truce with Time_

I read Parke Godwin’s novel A Truce with Time: A Love Story with Occasional Ghosts in 1990, shortly before my college graduation. (The book had been published in 1988; it was written in 1986, and set in 1979.)

What I remember of my reaction to it is that it felt to me more mature than books I was used to reading. The male lead is a 50-year-old writer (and former stage actor), and he has a complicated life history, and close friends, and emotional hangups, and family ghosts who might be literal or might be metaphorical. The female lead is a 55-year-old video-art-maker, who also has a history of her own. There’s a depth to these characters, a richness of backstory that I wasn’t used to seeing in fantasy novels.

I’ve thought about the book now and then over the past 30+ years, but haven’t picked it up again until now. But something reminded me of it recently, and I decided to re-read it.

And now I’ve done so, and found it really interesting. I can’t entirely recommend it, but it’s unusual and fascinating, and I really love some of it.

Here are some thoughts about it:

I would say that it’s about love, and anger, and addiction (especially alcoholism), and loss, and familial bullying verging on abuse, and art vs commerce, and artistic ambition, and financial stability (or lack thereof), and the gender dynamics of mid-twentieth-century white straight middle-class America, and some of the ways that people are shaped by those things.

It was published by Bantam Spectra, as a fantasy novel, but I would call it pretty much mainstream literary fiction. In particular, I would say that it mostly relies on 1970s- to 1980s-literary-fiction protocols instead of modern-fantasy protocols. The setting (the NYC art-and-literary world); the frequent alcohol, cigarettes, and discussions of sex; the 50-year-old male lead who’s dealing with an emotional crisis and trying to cope with the (metaphorical) scars left by his stage-actor parents; the rhythms of the dialogue; the characters’ concerns and interests and interactions. I have a bit more familiarity with that kind of book now, and a bit less patience for it, than I did at 22. But I nonetheless like the faint aura of the fantastical that those tropes acquire from being in a Bantam Spectra book. If it had been published by a non-genre publisher, I think it would have been easy to read the (vividly portrayed) familial ghosts as purely memories and imagination; but as it is, I like the way that they waver uncertainly (at least in my reading of them) between literal and metaphorical.

The book is clearly at least a little bit autobiographical. The male lead, Pat Landry, was born in 1929, and has just turned 50 when the book opens, in 1979. Pat used to be a stage actor, and then became a fantasy novelist, known for writing books about King Arthur. Everything in this paragraph is also true of the book’s author, Parke Godwin.

But I have no idea whether any of the rest of it is true—whether Godwin (who died in 2013) had any of Pat’s personality or family history or romantic history or approach to work or problems with alcohol or etc. (A quick web search has turned up very little info about his personal life.)

The book is overall pretty serious, dealing with some very serious topics, but it has moments of being really funny. For example, I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the book when Pat and a romance-novelist friend of his are at a science fiction convention and they narrate to each other what they’re doing, each in their own writing style.

Another point of interest: Pat is at least a little less sexist and more emotionally self-aware than I expect from that kind of literary fiction from that period. (Though I haven’t read much of that kind of book, so my expectations are based in very little data.) For example, he explicitly tells a longtime female friend, “I don’t want to do the Alcoholic Writer bit, the child genius who has to be coddled by every woman he knows. Art as excuse for asshole. I despise people like that.” (p. 7) (…Though that statement is complicated by the fact that he is in fact an alcoholic writer, who occasionally behaves quite badly when he gets drunk.)

And perhaps relatedly: women are unexpectedly prominent and nuanced in this book. A fairly large fraction of the book—maybe a third or so (but that’s just a guess)—is from various women’s points of view (mostly the female lead, Lauren). Pat almost never interacts onscreen with men other than his family members; when he’s not writing, or interacting with the ghosts/memories of his family, he spends time with any of four or five women (only one of whom he’s sleeping with).

The unfortunate side of the portrayal of the women is that it feels to me like most of them have lives that are centered entirely on the man they’re with or on finding a man to be with. There are, of course, real people whose lives are like that (and that may have been more common in 1979 than it is now) (and the book does touch on the web of complicated societal forces that can result in that centering, including financial security); but it comes up so often in this book that it makes me wonder whether Godwin thought that it was true of most women.

And it’s the kind of book where the male lead is pretty consistently referred to by his last name (in narration), and the women by their first names.

But then again, I would have expected a lot more sexism from a book written by a 55-year-old straight man who was born in 1929. I wouldn’t have expected the women in the book to have nearly as much interiority and agency and independence as they have.

And the female lead, Lauren Hodge, is a fascinating character. She’s 55 years old; she was married and raised two children to adulthood, and then she left her life in Portland, OR, behind and moved to NYC to become an artist, and she’s now ambitious and semi-successful and dedicated almost exclusively to her work.

Even with Lauren, there are occasional unfortunate gender dynamics, moments when (for example) Pat interacts with Lauren and then narrates something to the effect that female psychology is weird and unlike male logic. But then again, in Lauren’s POV scenes, she’s occasionally (quite rightly) upset that the men in her life keep expecting her to do everything for them.

Anyway, I’m not used to seeing characters like Lauren in fiction, regardless of genre; I’m mostly pleased and impressed with the portrayal of her.

One more thing, speaking of gender dynamics—a moment that I particularly like, near the beginning of the book (pp. 4-5), from the viewpoint of a secondary female character:

[Caroline] and Landry had never been lovers, but from their first meeting as office temporaries eight years ago, they became more than friends, with a deep understanding. Both of them had been up and a long time down. […]

Never lovers—Caroline idly wondered why sometimes and concluded they just didn’t ring each other’s bells that way. Not that it mattered; you didn’t have to sleep with everyone you loved.

(And something similar turns out later to be true with another female friend of Pat’s—they’re longtime close friends, and physically affectionate, but she makes very clear that she isn’t going to sleep with him.)

That’s the one bit of the book that I specifically remembered for all these years, although I misremembered it as being dialogue between the two of them rather than as narration. (And I misremembered it as being a situation where they were somewhat interested in each other but just had never got around to sleeping together.) Even now, I’m still really unused to seeing two prominent viewpoint characters of compatible orientations being close friends but not being interested in going to bed together. It happens all the time in real life, but I rarely see it in fiction.

The book does need a bunch of content warnings: some casual use of ethnic slurs (including one I had never seen before); suicide and suicidal ideation; angry alcoholic men and women; references to domestic violence, and a couple of onscreen moments of same; a few unfortunate (but brief) portrayals of gay and lesbian characters; old-fashioned gender dynamics; a couple of fat jokes; near-total absence of characters of color despite being set in NYC; etc. I can’t unreservedly recommend the book.

But overall, I found it fascinating and unusual. I’m still thinking about whether I want to try to get permission to reprint it.

For more about Godwin’s work, especially his Arthuriana, see an overview from Green Man Review published in 2002. But that doesn’t mention this book at all.

(Side note: I was really sure that the we-never-slept-together scene in this book had one character saying something like “How come we never slept together?” and the other saying something like “I guess we never got around to it. Oh, well, it’s too late to start now.” Which is so specific, and so definitely not quite what’s in the book itself, that now I wonder whether I read that scene in some other book and just conflated it with this one.)

(See also a related blog post of mine from 2011—but that’s a slightly different topic; that’s about characters who are interested in each other but nonetheless don’t sleep together.)

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