A Non-review by J. Stefan-Cole
THE CURE, Varley O’Connor’s third novel, Bellevue Literary Press, is an ambitious look into the life of a family touched by polio. Beginning with three year old Scott waking up one sticky August morning in 1931 laid low by disease—‚”listless and cranky” the night before, no other warning of devastation—the story continues through the last throes of World War II.
A child suddenly can’t walk: Poliomyelitis was the AIDS of its era. Rather than gays and the sexually diverse, this virus preyed on kids, paralyzing muscular apparatus, like the diaphragm for lung function, forcing its victims into tortuous-looking iron lungs. FDR comes to mind, or Jerry Lewis: weepy telethons on brand X TV, bad jokes about kids in leg braces, and ubiquitous March of Dimes collection cups by store cash registers. Polio was the scourge until the Salk vaccine was developed in the 1950′s. They made mistakes in the early days of treatment, smothering growing young limbs in plaster casts that did more harm than good. Children were warned not to put pennies in their mouth, to avoid public drinking fountains and pools (summer was the ripe time for contagion), and crowded places—like movie theatres, lest they catch it. Those who did were isolated in hospital wards. Families visited patients through glass windows, contact not allowed, no comforting touch. And then came long years of rehab, often away from home.
This it the story of a clan: mother Maeve, father Vern, Howard, Scott and Patsy Hatherford, along with an assortment of relations and servants. Scott is more or less cured after years of surgeries and muscle transplants, his limbs less withered, his life closer to normal, but the family is not. The story also belongs to its time: America during the war, seen from the perspective of a family that had weathered the Depression and prospered. They live in a New Jersey that is still countrified, the rolling hills of Bergen County situated close to the alluring city: Broadway glitter, Fifth Avenue, jazz and wartime glamour. Vern owns a Ford dealership in Hoboken in the time of Frank Sinatra, the waterfront is industrial working class and a little seedy (the antithesis of hip Hoboken today). Patsy lets her mother know she heard the name Dutch Shultz whispered one night after some shady types showed up to collect one of Daddy’s cars. The sprawling Hatherford acreage in Ridgewood includes an arriviste manse that Vern’s long-suffering beauty of a wife ultimately calls ‚”no place for children”. Scott’s polio becomes the family’s make or break challenge. Life is materially good, but boozy Christmas parties (through to New Years), extravagant shopping sprees, loyal black servants that are like family (seeing to it the real Hatherfords never have to lift a finger for themselves), money enough to buy Scott the best treatment available don’t add up to home.