Of Potatoes and Alligators

In Jane Bowles’ story “Plain Pleasures,” published the year I was born, 1966, we meet Alva Perry, “a dignified and reserved woman of Scotch and Spanish descent in her early forties,” who is “still handsome, although her cheeks were too thin.” Alva is widowed and lives alone in a tenement, in the basement of which lives John Drake, “an equally reserved person.” One day Alva runs into John, not coincidentally it seems, and the two of them end up sharing a deliciously dreary “potato bake” in the back yard, the quintessential “plain pleasure” of the title. 

Jane Bowles (drawing by CS, sourced from photograph at www.denniscooperblog.com)

John Drake’s faltering attempts at conversation are swept away by Alva Perry, whose long monologue touches on her sister, Dorothy Alvarez, an extrovert, whose invitation to “go and raise the dickens with her” Alva refuses, stating “It’s always better to stay alongside of your life,” by which she presumably means, engage in plain pleasures with men such as John Drake. John Drake’s own monologue (there is no real conversation) touches on his decision to turn down an opportunity to run an alligator farm in Florida, a decision which has left him “woeful.”

Eventually Alva goes out to eat with John Drake, who offers her “Nothing dishonorable … on the contrary, something extremely honorable if you will accept.” Alva Perry does not. Instead, rather inebriated, she winks at the lecherous restaurant proprietor and goes upstairs to one of his bedrooms, where she falls into bed, ecstatic to be alone. 

At this point, as the rain teems down outside an open window, we become privy to the inner complexity of Alva Perry. “I have kept the pathway open all my life,” she mutters to herself, thinking fondly of her own bedroom, “.. so that I could get back.” Weeping, she imagines herself back there,”an expression of malevolent triumph” transforming her face as she finally falls asleep. 

What is the triumph, and from whose perspective is it malevolent? Bowles is engaging here in a kind of observational Cubism–we are viewing Alva both from outside and in, simultaneously. Alva wants intimacy, but not at the price of her own integrity–pleasure, nullified by plain-ness–and can only rest when both poles are held in relationship. The impossible situation of a woman whose desire for intactness conflicts with her urge to connect is subtly contrasted with the (perhaps) less torturous or loaded solitude of poor John Drake.

When Alva wakes, sobered, the next morning, she remembers her uncle passing out at a business convention, and comforts herself by considering this similarity. She’s relatively normal, after all. Isn’t she? This morning the restaurant is clean and empty, and her date long since gone, allowing her to indulge in some paradoxical sentiment: “John Drake, … my sweet John Drake.”

So far so quaint. But let’s back up a page: there is a faint suggestion, just as Alva heads upstairs, that the restaurant proprietor might be planning to take advantage of her while she is passed out, a suggestion never resolved. Bowles would never be so crude. Her stories trade less in events than perceptions; few of her characters, least of all Alma, are even conventionally likeable. Far from plain, despite its straightforward language, “Plain Pleasures” reveals a parallel world in which people try to talk yet no one understands, and in which apparently tragic events remain oddly comic. It’s a disturbing, absurdist little masterpiece.

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