Mary Gaitskill’s new collection of essays, Somebody With A Little Hammer is filled with an eclectic mix of literary criticism and memoir. She discusses the stardom and then alleged sexual and physical abuse of Linda Lovelace in her essay entitled “Icon.” After revisiting Lovelace’s life for myself (her fame with Deep Throat and then her subsequent escape from the adult film industry), there’s no question that she was taken advantage of and held captive by Chuck Traynor but Gaitskill digs deeper into the psychology of the 1970s, free love gone wrong and the grey areas of abuse. In conclusion, there’s no clear cut answer or sense of closure for Lovelace and her story. This sense of life being unclear and strewn with mixed emotions floods Gaitskill’s essays but she always articulates the fact that some things simply cannot be articulated in a satisfying way.
Gaitskill writes about Anton Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries” and teaching it; it is here that we discover how this collection came to get its name: “At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist.” Gaitskill writes a lot about unhappy people, herself included. Her autobiographical essay “Lost Cat” is probably my favorite in the collection. It gives the reader a real sense of the kind of person Gaitskill is: her warmth, her troubled relationship with her father, her sense of responsibility to reach out to others. The lost cat is simply a door through which she is able to talk about foster children with whom she formed a special bond, her sisters, and her father’s tough upbringing and then his death. This essay made me like Gaitskill more than ever. It made her seem approachable. Having seen her at a reading several years ago, I was taken aback by her starkness and by her melancholy directness. I was a bit intimidated to say the least. While reading “Lost Cat,” I was pleasantly surprised at how kind and understanding she seemed. It made me only want to read more.
Some of the other essays include critical analysis and glimpses of the films of Laurel Nakadate, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde and The Book of Revelation. I love the way Gaitskill writes about women, especially when she delves into Oates’s exploration of Marilyn Monroe’s life in the essay “Dye Hard.” Although Blonde is fiction, it’s clear that there are a lot of things in Blonde that actually happened to Monroe and Gaitskill describes being “blown away” by it (albeit if you can get over the sometimes “overexcited” writing). Gaitskill also addresses the film adaptation of her short story “Secretary.” She discusses the major discrepancies between the story and Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. We get the sense that even this quirky film dealing with sadomasochism is far too light for Gaitskill (because it has a happy ending). Even if you haven’t read Gaitskill’s story “Secretary” (from the 1988 collection Bad Behavior) you can imagine that it doesn’t end in an expected, Hollywood movie-type way.
Gaitskill also writes in depth about visiting St. Petersburg with her husband; it is here that she was knocked semi-unconscious by a bridge and had flashbacks of a friend she knew when she was still working as a stripper many years before. Gaitskill’s writing is surprisingly tender but always on point and never misses a beat. She has such control of the language that I never once hesitated as to where each essay was unfolding even in the middle of an essay about people with an intense dislike for Celine Dion. After reading Somebody With A Little Hammer, I only wanted to know more about Mary Gaitskill the woman and writer (so now I’m revisiting Bad Behavior).