Randall Curb - Issue 111

The Giant's House, by Elizabeth McCracken. Dial Press, 1996. 259 pp. (paperback forthcoming)

Named by Granta in 1996 as one of America's most promising fiction-writers, Elizabeth McCracken has, in her first novel, accomplished two remarkable feats. She has given us a first-person voice that is unique and arresting from its opening utterance: "I do not love mankind." And she has created a character-his name is James Carlson Sweatt, and he is physically a giant-who dwarfs every other fictive character in recent memory. The voice belongs to a thirtyish librarian called Peggy Cort who has been trying to fit snugly into her own misanthropy. James, the giant, is not quite a teenager when he walks into her library and, just by being himself, causes Peggy to fall helplessly in love with him. Their story is subtitled "a romance," and, even with no kisses, it is a fine one.

Peggy is not an easy woman to love. She knows it; she revels in her unlovableness. It has protected her and consoled her. With distant, emotionally frugal parents back in Boston, she has settled in a small resort town on Cape Cod. Though she narrates the entire novel, we don't see her in her apartment until the last pages of the book. The little library she runs with such efficiency-for years she never misses a day of work-is her home and her fortress. Somewhere inside it is a heart, and she knows it is there. She says that while some people are ruined by love, she "was ruined by the lack of it." This is not a plea for sympathy but a statement of simple fact. Facts, especially the kind that can be formulated on catalog cards or held up as rules (your book is late, you owe a nickel), keep things orderly, in perspective. Far from being a romantic, she looks at herself and others dead-on. "My feet were wide, wide, wide, and flat-footed," she tells us, "which was mostly a blessing - no arches to ache or fall."

James has big feet, too. But then, when he turns sixteen and has become a frequent visitor to the library, he is seven and a half feet tall. His feet are so big he's been hired as an attraction, a drawing-card, at a shoe store, where he puts his enormous trotters under a fluoroscope for shoppers to marvel over. Attuned to his librarian , s fondness for him, he brings her complimentary shoes from the store that he thinks will be good for her aching feet. They don't quite fit because she has fibbed about her size, but she loves those orthopedic-style shoes. Cinderella couldn't be any prouder.

You may now be wondering, So, a novel about pedophilia and foot fetishism. But this is no more a book about those things than The Ballad of the Sad Café is about midgets and cock fights. The analogy comes to mind because Elizabeth McCracken has said that Carson McCullers is one of her favorite writers. Almost everything McCullers wrote is concerned with the frustration, even the impossibility, of love, and in her novels and stories the more intense the love is, the greater the obstacles to it become. There arebeautiful passages in The Giant's House that seem deeply inspired by the voice of Carson McCullers. Listen to Peggy here:

"Perhaps I was a princess from a fairy tale. Sometimes, when your lover does not step from the woods to save you ... sometimes you have to marry your tower, your tiny room. You must take great interest in everything, a spinning wheel, a perfect single bed, the sound of someone breathing on the other side of the door. Once I had thought that the library was my tower, but that wasn't true. My love for James was the dark room I moved into......"

Because McCracken is persuasive enough in the voice of Peggy to lead us to sympathize with her without sentimentalizing her in any way, we also come under James's inadvertent spell. We see his charm as Peggy does-in the books he reads, his modesty, his awkwardness in maneuvering around a room, his unselfconsciousness with other teenagers, his frailty. Peggy discovers early on that James will die young. Unable to stop growing, he must eventually fall to one of any number of possible medical calamities. His mother, who is referred to by her own sister-in-law as Mrs. Sweatt, knows this and is dying too, of alcoholism, grief, and despair. Abandoned by Mr. Sweatt, she is the one Peggy says is ruined by love. Her love for James, once it is coupled with her helplessness in saving him, destroys her. Peggy steps in-book provider, confidant, mother substitute, inamorata.

Together with James' aunt and uncle, Peggy sees to the building of a customized one-room house in which everything will be in scale for him, including a specially made chair and bed. Word gets out, people come. James Sweatt, "The Giant of Cape Cod," is written up in Time magazine, and the town has another tourist attraction. Peggy keeps herjob as librarian but comes to "manage" James's celebrity. She even accompanies him on a trip to New York, where he is briefly paired in a circus act with the world's tiniest woman. Named Leila, and married five times (each husband successively taller), she is McCracken's wittiest and most perceptive secondary creation. She immediately diagnoses Peggy's condition. Noting that she can't marry "Jimmy" because she's not in-between at the moment, she asks him to wait for her. "Meanwhile," she announces, "he should marry whoever he likes." She looks at Peggy. "You, maybe. Maybe you and Jimmy, right?"

Peggy tells her story retrospectively, years after its events, and so she has already confessed to us. She has learned to open up-although there's such intimacy in the telling the reader feels like a stranger Peggy is addressing in strict confidentiality. At one point she even says, "I have always loved strangers agood deal more than my own family, will be politer and friendlier on a bus or in an airport than I am at a dinner table. You have nothing to lose with strangers: they will like you or not and most likely never think of you again, and conversation becomes that much easier."

Yes, Peggy has owned up to her longing, and James will come to sense it in all its irony and pathos. A quarter through the novel Peggy sets it down. "I loved him in a way that I have never and will never love anyone ever again ... I loved him because he was young and dying and needed me. I loved not only his height, but his careful way with any hobby, his earnestness, his strange sense of humor that always surprised me. I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him, and I was not. I loved him because I discovered that ... after years of practice, I had a talent for it."

Elizabeth McCracken is a wonderful writer. She has a gift for similes and asides keener than anyone I've read in ages. Here's one of many examples: "Mrs. Sweatt wore a distracted, wistful look on her face, like the girl singer of a big band during a tragic ballad's instrumental solo." Once we know that about Mrs. Sweatt, everything else seems inevitably to follow.

We may all be strangers to McCracken at this point, so early in her career. But it is very unlikely that we will never think of her-or Peggy, or James-again.