ON THE STROLL by Alix Kates Shulman


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While many critics dismissed Shulman's Burning Questions (1978) as a humorless tract, some--remembering the acerbic edges of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen--gave her the benefit of the doubt, finding inklings of an ironic, complex sensibility. This time, sadly, there's no question about it: Shulman has become a novelist of dismaying flatness and sentimentality, and this study of three Hell's Kitchen (N.Y.C.) denizens--a pimp, a runaway, a shopping-bag lady--is journalistic at best, with frequent lapses into psychological soap opera. The bag lady is ""Owl,"" and as we follow her fearful rounds of the Times Square/Port Authority Bus Terminal area, Shulman fills in her treasured, bemoaned past: naughty good times as a WW II WAC; rotten marriage to cruel husband Bert--who (after their newborn son died) got himself a Mexican divorce, took away their daughter Milly, and left ""Owl"" to a lifetime of drifting in and out of mental illness, yearning for lost daughter Milly. And Owl finds a Milly substitute (she half-knows it's just a fantasy) when she spies teenage runaway Robin getting off a bus from Maine. So from then on the focus trundles back and forth between Owl and Robin--as Owl's life deteriorates while Robin is swept under the slick wing of sexy, mixed-blooded pimp Prince. First he platonically befriends the girl, then sleeps with her, then (having won her gratitude and confidence) insists that she get money for him by hooking. And Robin, product of a stormy home (abusive father, alcoholic mother), reluctantly complies: ""The only way she knew how to keep him was to be the best little hooker on the stroll."" But--while a watchful Owl tentatively gets closer to contact with Robin/Milly--Robin yearns to get free of stern, commanding Prince. And eventually she does run, staying with a sex-hungry student acquaintance (he doesn't know her profession), then using him to get a job as a mother's helper. Finally, however, this new life is shattered by yet another abusive man--her posh, randy boss--and Robin, back on the street, grapples for ""freedom"" . . . which she'll get from Owl, who, before dying a victim's death, connects with her substitute daughter at last and funds her escape to California. A limp, treacly scenario--which is occasionally given sharpness and color by Shulman's obvious research: some lifestyle details here (hooking, pimping, vagrancy) are interesting on a magazine-story level. Otherwise, however, the efforts to flesh out this sociological report--psychological workups on all the broken homes involved (Prince's too); heavyhanded parallels between victim Owl and victim Robin--are leaden and didactic. And none of the characters ever seems more than a hard-working composite. Too sentimental and genteel to deliver a naturalistic punch, then, too earnestly clinical to work up much narrative steam: a well-meaning and literate still-life which ultimately feels more akin to YA writing (or high-minded TV-movies) than serious adult fiction.

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf