Author’s note: I wrote this short piece in 1998 while my wife and I anxiously awaited a trip overseas that would result in the adoption of a bright-eyed toddler from Romania. Twelve years later, at peace as an often humbled father of a 13-year-old girl, I am not quite as disgruntled a writer but am certain of one thing (spoiler alert): George Orwell was right to create a happy ending in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. For those readers who like their dessert bittersweet: sorry to ruin your day, sourpusses. Man is simply wired to desire happy endings. (And to those who went there … get your minds out of the gutter. Ha.)
I once aspired to be a 29-year-old moth-eaten writer who thought, to hell with the money world and to hell with hypocrisy, I’d rather be dignified than successful. My role model and champion of hardship causes was none other than Gordon Comstock, a bitingly cynical English book clerk whom George Orwell created and I, in my freshman year of college, embraced, if not emulated.
Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is a noble rascal who spends his days constructing poetry and quietly poking fun at an assortment of customers, including romance readers and pompous old ladies who namedrop best-selling authors to impress their peers.
As an 18-year-old suburban misfit, I somehow related so well to Gordon, even though culturally we existed as polar dilettantes. I had never lived alone, barely knew what the word “poverty” meant, and had trouble reading Elizabethan verse, no less writing it. Gordon, on the other hand, had one book of poems published, although the work’s subtle brilliance (in Gordon’s mind) apparently eluded the mainstream so it immediately became remaindered, a forgotten collection buried in a discount bin.
Unlike my hero, I was altogether bourgeois: a devotee of rock concerts and pool halls, not art museums and antiquarian bookshops.
Gordon, though, voiced the resentment I felt toward money with its obstacles and power. He alone expressed so ably the loathsome, insincere quality of jingles and billboards that I found inescapable in capitalist society.
To a young angry man groping his way through Orwellian times, Gordon represented the artist’s struggle to be an individual, not a conformist — to be true to one’s own belief system, not someone else’s.
Gordon, however, eventually becomes well enough rounded in the novel to recognize that in life, compromises are sometimes necessary. In the end, he surrenders his protest against society’s mores and material goods for a doting wife and ambitious career.
As an unattached and unsettled teen, I understandably was appalled that Gordon would abandon his admirable dreams, all for the sake of a woman. I found it difficult to accept then that a so-called true artist, one with integrity and a higher purpose, would permit love to alter his thinking.
Only now, as a 32-year-old husband and soon-to-be-father, do I understand why Orwell found it necessary for Gordon to change his priorities and transform his character. Otherwise, Keep the Aspidistra Flying easily could have concluded with a tragedy. In the name of art, a marriage would have been forsaken. Instead, the exceptionally told tale ends with Gordon listening for the rumble of a fetus in his wife’s protruding belly.
In some ways, I’ve based my life on this book. I’ve become a bookseller and a disgruntled writer to boot — sometimes disgusted and often bewildered with the indifferent ways of our world. But in the end, I too am a loving husband and a nervously expectant father willing to make sacrifices for my marriage — and family life — to work.
Now, dear reader, indulge me in a playful poem that I wrote a year prior to my decision to see life through a different set of eyes. I’m not sure I recognize anymore the guy who wrote this poem. But he’s a near relative whose world view had not yet been unwrapped like a present by the prying fingers of a baby girl.
Not even a hired laborer on a ladder
With paint brush in calloused hand
And a suede leather watchband
Has time for personal matters.
As for the neighborhood dentist,
“Just sit in the chair still,
It’ll only take a minute to fill,
There, ain’t that better, now sign this.”
Off you go hurry to the gym to train,
Maybe your partner can listen between spots,
You’re always a shoulder when her life rots,
But all she can offer is “no pain, no gain.”
Then there’s your butcher looking tired and broke,
Plenty of parking in front of his downtown shop,
His days of discussing bologna all but stopped,
The lone talk is business: “We’re havin’ a special on Coke.”
Your husband comes home, he’s testy and worn,
Another starched collar on Wall Street,
Gel in hair, bunions on feet,
He’s weighing his options, his face forlorn.
Your widowed friend calls, she needs a loan
It’s god-awful tough to make it alone,
The rent’s overdue, the house lacks heat
The kids are afraid, there’s nothing to eat
She’s hysterical, you’re in a trance—
Why is it always me who has to feed these goddamn plants?
Your husband growls, hungry and mean,
Your friend howls, aching and lean.
You wake in the morning and run to the bank,
Withdraw a few hundred and fill the gas tank,
As you drive to your friend’s, you step on it and sing,
“There’s gotta be more than cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.”
~ DC 6/20/97