Bette Howland, forgotten author, in the spotlight with Things Come and Go

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In 2015, Brigid Hughes, an editor at A Public Space, was browsing a sale rack at the Housing Works Bookstore in Manhattan when she came across a memoir called “W-3.” She was struck by the work’s lively voice and surprised that she had never heard of its author, Bette Howland.

Howland, in fact, had a storied past. She’d worked at small magazines, studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had a long, flirtatious correspondence with Saul Bellow, whom she met at a writer’s conference when she was 24 and he was nearly twice that. She published “W-3,” a frank recollection of her time in a psychiatric hospital, in 1974. A few years earlier, as a single mother of two, Howland had attempted suicide in Bellow’s apartment when he was out of town. In 1978, she published her second book, the collection Blue in Chicago,” which won her a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her third, “Things to Come and Go” (1983), helped her earn a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship the following year.

After that? Decades of silence.

Hughes set out to find Howland, and did — only to learn from her son Jacob that the 77-year-old writer wouldn’t be able to speak to her. The year before, she had been hit by a truck while walking home from the grocery store. Already suffering from multiple sclerosis and dementia, Howland lost her ability to communicate: “Her words scatter like vegetables bouncing on asphalt,” her son later wrote.

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So began Hughes’s mission to rescue Howland’s work from obscurity. In 2019, two years after Howland’s death at age 80, A Public Space reissued Howland’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” a collection combining memoir, essays and fiction that first appeared in TriQuarterly. Last year came a new edition of “W-3,” and now we have a new edition of “Things Come and Go,” a slim volume containing three longish, exuberantly voice-y short stories.

As in the case of Lucia Berlin — a late, little-known author who won a new generation of fans when her stories were reissued as “A Manual for Cleaning Women” in 2015 — the growing interest in Bette Howland’s work was helped along by her son. Jacob Howland wrote and spoke about his mother’s oeuvre and her lifelong depression in Commentary and elsewhere, sharing his suspicion that winning the MacArthur grant in 1984 had “sapped her confidence.” It would be an understatement to say that’s a shame.

As Rumaan Alam points out in his introduction to “Things to Come and Go,” the strength of Howland’s work is the warmth and liveliness of her highly personable voice. “She’s good company, cracking wise about everything and everyone she sees.” Yes, she is. But beneath the bright patter and eye-catching descriptions, each story has sadness at its core.

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In the first story of the collection, “Birds of a Feather,” a young first-person narrator dishes the dirt on her father’s family, first-generation working-class Jews — “the big brassy yak-yakking Abarbanels.” The men are large, swarthy and “virilely pockmarked,” with “palpable noses” and when the women come down the street, arms linked, purses swinging, “three sets of hips bolstered their skirts like the sofas under the bedsheets.” (Howland was Jewish.)

While there’s a lot of action, there’s no overall plot — the story is basically a series of gossipy anecdotes and sassy character sketches. Of her uncle Reuben’s wife, Luellen: “What she liked was lying on the bed with her feet propped up — ten stubby frosty-pink toenails — smoking and reading confession magazines.”

Of her “very good-looking” boyfriend Donny: “He had that kind of curly grape-cluster hair that statues have, and his nose was like a statue’s too; smashed.”

Of her spinster aunt Honey: “Honey’s hair was red these days, medicinal red, the color of the cough syrup on the shelves at Dykstra’s; her face was as powdered and pitted as the vaccination mark on her arm.”

Even as bad things happen — deaths, breakups, bad behavior — the emotional tone remains jokey and even. These “birds of a feather” may be linked by blood and resemblance, but what about love? Essayist Johanna Kaplan, who reviewed the book when it came out in 1983, called “Birds of a Feather” a story of “terrifying emotional coldness.” Very well hidden, though, behind a flood of energetic storytelling.

The second story, “The Old Wheeze,” circles around the problem of love in a different way, introducing four characters, and taking their perspectives in turn. Mrs. Cheatham is an older Black woman who works as a babysitter for a little boy named Mark. His single mother, Sydney, dates a much older man named Leo, who drives Mrs. Cheatham home at the end of these date nights.

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Lonely Mrs. Cheatham is confused by Leo’s attempts to chat her up and bond with her on their drives. Finally she figures it out — he must a be a liberal. That explains it. Sydney is intimidated by Mrs. Cheatham, and by motherhood in general. “She loved [Mark] rashly, at times frantically — squeezing him to her as if her were her life, her breath, and she could scarcely catch him. Still, in her heart of hearts, she suspected that almost anyone would be better at her job, more qualified, than she was.” Her relationship with Leo, a professor at the college she attends, has come in the wake of the failure of her first marriage, and though she has focused her hopes for happiness on him, she sees that he likes her only because she is pretty and young.

The final story, “The Life You Gave Me,” also circles around an imperfect parent-child bond. A woman has flown to Florida to see her father after surgery. They say he is going to be all right, but she knows the reprieve is temporary; there has been another health scare 10 years ago, and — “Well? What are we waiting for? We know what’s coming, don’t we?” With the inevitability of loss staring her in the face, there are things she should say but doesn’t know if she will find the words, and is not ready to let him go.

The narrator distracts herself from the anguish of the immediate situation with meditations on her father’s life and character, and observations about the Florida climate and landscape. “Builders in South Florida are like God in the universe. Their handiwork is everywhere but they are nowhere to be seen. They move on, leaving Gardens of Eden all over the place, and nothing quite finished.”

Perhaps the same could be said about Bette Howland.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love” “The Big Book of the Dead” and, most recently, “Above Us Only Sky.”

A Public Space. 156 pp. Paperback, $16.95

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