PULITZER PRIZE-WINNER Carol Shields stomps over familiar subject matter in her latest novel, Larry's Party: middle-class middle-agers mulling over life's choices. What makes this work stand out is that for the first time in her literary career, Shields has chosen to try on a man's skin for her primary character. It's a woman sympathizing with this bloke who thinks of women as "rescue ships with pantyhose," and knowing this gives the book an interesting spin.
Larry's existence is a relatively simple one, which makes stacking and restacking its components an easy task. Pushed into a career in floral design by his mother, Larry gets married, has a child, divorces, remarries, and divorces again. There's nothing very remarkable about this course and here within lies Larry's lesson: Without imagination, nothing comes to life. The chapters assess pieces of Larry's experience--marriages, career changes, high-school reunions, and divorces--before assembling them later in the book. What makes a friend, a sex life, a wife, a job?
Constantly sizing up his situation, Larry often wonders if everyone has "a little man inside his head, a dancing stick figure who gestures and darts just behind the wall of his forehead, a loose-jointed professor jumping up and down in excitement, debating, questioning, and never sleeping except when Larry sleeps." If one is to believe that everyone does indeed have such a presence, then Shields proves herself an intelligent commentator on those mysteries of life that affect both genders. The conceits of youth, the pain of aging, the fear of plain existence--Shields pounces on these themes like a literary Phil Donahue.
As for honing in on distinctively male experiences, Shields attempts it; whether she succeeds is up for discussion. Occasionally the churlishness of Larry's musings, e.g., on his penis--"It's his to wash and tug at and dust with talcum powder... so friendly and willing in its purplish moods"--fink out a female author. Then again, maybe such lofty thoughts are bound to come when a man's been pulling his pud for 40 years.