Work Ethics

Blow Your House Down
By Pat Baker
Putnam, $13.95

In England, Pat Barker's first novel, Union Street, caused something of a controversy. Was it presumptuous for a middle class woman to write about working-class women? Had Barker oversimplified, overstated? Set in 1973 during the coalminers' strike, on one street of an unnamed city, the novel depicted a particularly bleak moment for the English working class; the women in Union Street, though disciplined and ironic, faced dead-end existences, and while they sometimes prevailed with valor, sometimes they collaborated in their own undoing. An ocean away from the fights of early '80s British feminism, I found the stories direct, subtle, and devastating. If the feminist overview was occasionally routine, the undertaking itself was far from it, and the tone far from obvious. Barker was sympathetic, but as she tallied the willingness of woman after woman to let fate make decisions, to play by the rules of class as well as society -- never to complain, never to ask for help, never to leave -- there were flashes of frustration, of impatience, even anger. She didn't patronize: she credited her subjects with the ability to reason, to choose, to change, and when they didn't, she sometimes lost her temper, like a real sister. I thought that was honest.

In her second novel, Blow Your House Down, Barker is clearly asking for trouble again. This time, her protagonists are working-class women who did break the rules and, in a way, leave the world they were raised in. Like Barker herself, they're professionals. The main characters -- single mothers, battered wives, lesbians -- are, as the narrative gradually reveals, prostitutes.

Barker has taken up one of the thorniest of feminist subjects-that peculiar "victimless crime" in which the criminal is the victim. The prostitute is where the buck stops in various cultural contradictions of sexism, like the one where a man can't respect the women he desires, because a good woman is too pure for sex. The prostitute is the victim of hypocrisy: she becomes society's outcast, runs one theory, for taking cash rather than dinner and a show (or a wedding ring and respect). Still, does this make her a feminist heroine? Martyr? Is prostitution a good joke on sexist society, or a bad one, or is it tragic? Or does it depend?

The prostitutes in Barker's novel are perceived as ordinary working-class women whose job is compared implicitly to the only other employment a woman like Brenda (the first of three protagonists) could easily find in the area -- packing chicken at the local factory, whose front gates are Brenda's nighttime beat. Brenda, Audrey, Carol, Kath, Maureen, and Jean are relatively low-level hookers with basic skills, working the cars at five pounds a go, and it's pure assembly line: get it up, get it off, up, off, up , off. And wait. Still, the factory work rivals this -- gutting headless chicken after headless chicken, wading in entrails -- and the hours, and pay, are worse.

Barker doesn't explore the psychological factors that might have led her subjects into the business. These are neither rebels nor criminal types, nor even troubled victims of bad homes. Their motives are economic. They sell -- actually rent out -- their bodies as a last resort. None of them is on drugs and only one's a drunk. Only one has a pimp, and that in the loosest sense. Two are lesbians. Most are mothers. They know they're disgraced and don't enjoy contempt, but they're stoical about it, though they live in dread of hurting or even losing their children: Brenda, abandoned by a rotten husband, got into the life for its flexible hours when she realized the day sitter had been beating her two kids. These are disciplined, decent women, and while they have no hearts of gold for the customers, they help one another, sometimes valiantly. In short, they're the salt of the earth.

As I look out my window at the exhausted, nodding-out women who've been scanning the cars down there ever since the neighborhood gentrified, I suspect there's a sadder, meaner story than Barker has chosen to tell -- and as I check out the array of pose and costume, I suspect there's a gayer, vainer one as well. Still, Barker's perception of the nature and purpose of the work is both shrewd and troubling. On one hand, it's alienated labor -- the image of the chicken factory. On the other hand, the tricks are like installments in a certain kind of bad marriage, the kind where the wife has to conceal a man's problems from him, or he'll punish her.

Most of the customers are married and just as conventional wisdom has it, they want to complain about their problems at home more than they want sex. But what they're really paying for is to not be criticized. The product that Brenda sells isn't so much a man's ejaculation as his ego, and her tools -- under bridges, in deserted buildings, on rubble piles -- aren't exotic wiles plus the thrill of sin, but rather patience and persistence. One woman complains that what she minds most about the work is that she can never laugh anymore, for fear her trick will think she's laughing at him. A laugh at the wrong time can set her back 10 minutes. It can even cost her life. Indeed, as we come to realize via the subtly suspenseful pacing of the first section, there is a real plot in this slice of life, and it concerns a jack-the-ripper type who specializes in whores. By the start of the book he's already killed one of Brenda's crowd, and he'll soon kill another before our eyes.

For all her matter-of-factness, Barker has a flair for the drama of the psycho-crime. The strongest story in Union Street was about the rape of an 11-year-old girl -- the child's mesmerized collaboration, her complex, rather frightening defenses later. As Blow Your House Down clicks into gear, it looks as if this feminist chronicler of the working class has succeeded in constructing a conventional thriller on her own terms. She cannily exploits the creepiness inherent in her settings -- the shadows, the little slip-ups, the suspicious behavior of any customer. One victim's photo, mounted on a billboard, peers eerily over scene after scene.

Somewhere in the last half of the book, the plot recedes and a theme takes over. The second protagonist is Jean, a lesbian, who ends up avenging her lover's murder by stabbing a suspicious character who may or may not have been the murderer. The last section is about an ordinary married woman, Maggie Walker, whose near-fatal beating by an unidentified assailant casts suspicion on her own husband. The theme seems to be the warning quoted from Nietzsche as the book's preface: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." Though they escape the monster, Jean's nearly destroyed by her vengeance, and Maggie by her suspicion.

But another theme is hinted by the title, copped from the wicked wolf's threat to the three little pigs, and here things get confusing. Either the title choice is extremely casual, or it raises pretty specific expectations. Is the first victim's passivity straw, Jean's vengeance wood, and Maggie's marriage brick? And if that's the comparison, is there a hint of a warning that, given the dangers to which all women are prey, we'd survive better by keeping the good men on our side? I wouldn't want a simple moral bludgeoned on such a many-layered story, but as it stands now, so many ideas are raised with so few narrative connections that the uncertain denouement -- Maggie decides to quit the chicken factory? she'll never recover from her attack? humanity prevails anyhow? -- can't sustain them. Union Street's looser structure left space for connections to be found or not, but Blow Your House Down is tighter and more novelistic, while not quite tight or novelistic enough.

I feel a little odd being critical of a literary arrival as encouraging as Pat Barker, an author who had so much unnecessary trouble getting her first book published here. (Union Street was considered "too English.") Barker has an original voice, blunt but tactful, deft but plainspoken, and both her books offer reads no less provocative for being fast. Her feminism and her class concerns -- that's to say, her interest in those women who are in the wrong class to be feminist -- stay connected down to the core of her vision, and in many ways that vision is more original and more daring in the newer work. Her feminism is open-minded, personal, not too clubbish or academic, and it serves her well with a difficult subject. The connections she draws between "bad" and "good" women are not the predictable ones. Only the conclusion, or lack of one, is unsatisfying. Maybe Barker was bending over backwards to end her story of prostitution and misogyny on a positive note when there just isn't one. Maybe she hesitated to air a position on men that she knew could provoke still more ideological controversy. Or maybe -- and I say this like a real sister, the irritating kind -- she could have done a tiny rewrite.

Voice Literary Supplement, Oct. 1981