For Sylvie, movies weren’t just stories. They were a way out.
A few years ago I reviewed Conford’s And This Is Laura, and recalled it as pleasant, but largely unremarkable. So I was surprised to find Sylvie a much more sophisticated piece of work, with a sympathetic hard-luck heroine (who is infuriating nonetheless), an ambiguous ending (in which maybe she doesn’t learn all the obvious lessons) and a real eye for detail in a specific time and place.
The Plot: It is also pretty blunt about the situation 15 year old Sylvie Krail is in as the novel opens. Practically an orphan (she is rumored to have an alcoholic mother in an asylum near Rochester, NY), she is on her third foster home in the New York City suburbs, and it’s the third one that she’s had to fight off the lecherous advances of various “uncles”. So, in the spring of 1956, she’s been saving her babysitting money for three years, hatching an elaborate plan to escape to Hollywood where she will be “discovered”.
Sylvie is a girl who has been raised by movie fan magazines- a bottomless repository of information about manners and grooming advice from the likes of Debbie Reynolds, Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood (whom she has already picked out as a BFF once she gets her big break), and romantic fantasies of William Holden, Harry Belafonte and especially James Dean, who’s been dead about 8 months as the book opens- he becomes a touchstone in the plot, as Sylvie eagerly awaits the posthumous release of Giant later that year:
A lot of them try to act like James Dean and dress like him and let their cigarettes hang off their lips till you think they’re going to set fire to themselves. But it takes a lot more than a pair of jeans and a garrison belt to be James Dean. They just end up looking hoody, and some of them really are JDs, but the thing is, you know James Dean isn’t, you know that he’s just misunderstood, and on the inside he’s good and it just takes the right person to understand him and sympathize with him for the goodness to come out.
These guys imitate him, they don’t know how he suffers, they don’t understand how he really hurts inside. So, they’ll never be James Dean because they don’t know what it feels like to hurt so much that you can hardly talk to people.
As Conford shows-not-tells, Sylvie is both incredibly naïve about people, while good enough at imitating what she sees in the movies to get out of a jam (figuring her case worker won’t believe her that foster father #2 is also on the make, she knows exactly what to do to escape from the situation by behaving “JD”) Her plan to escape from the latest foster home is also meticulous: laying a false trail pointing towards Rochester, Sylvie boards a Greyhound for Los Angeles, and almost immediately runs into trouble when the nice little old lady sitting beside her steals her wallet out of her handbag, leaving her stranded without cash, suitcase or bus ticket in Indiana.
So, she can’t believe her good fortune when a kindly Bible salesman offers to drive her to L.A. out of the goodness of his heart! Testing out her new screen name, Venida Meredith, she and Walter head south to Kentucky to do some business along the way. Again, Conford’s period touches are beautifully done, as the Sylvie hears the exotic stylings of Hank Williams on the radio for the first time as they drive further south.
Is Walter really helping her out of the goodness of his heart? OF COURSE NOT! Sylvie becomes more wary of Walter as the trip progresses, and he continues to pass her off as his daughter:
I was beginning to think maybe Venida wasn’t such a good name after all. Somehow I liked it less and less the more Walter said it. I don’t know why.
She also becomes less impressed by Walter’s skills at sales as they move into the most impoverished parts of the Ozarks:
I went into the first few houses Walter called at, but after about an hour, I stopped going inside with him and just waited in the car.
These people were poor. I never knew there were such poor people in America. I never saw them on television. I couldn’t remember any movies about people like this.
Half of the people Walter called on couldn’t even read. I mean, not the children or the grown-ups. Sure, I’d seen movies with real old Negro people who had been slaves before the Civil War, and they had to sign something and they said they couldn’t read or write, so they just made an “X” on the paper, but that was only in the movies.
I started getting really depressed after the first few calls and listening to Walter trying to convince the women they needed a gold-stamped Bible more than they needed milk for their babies was getting on my nerves.
Things finally boil over when Walter catches Sylvie making out with the teenage son of one of his potential customers (…who looks like Burt Lancaster and Sylvie compares the experience to James Dean and Julie Harris’s love scenes in East of Eden), and Walter reveals his true intentions: they’re headed to Las Vegas where they will be married.
And then I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I started crying again, not knowing what I could do, except that I couldn’t take care of myself, I was helpless. I cried louder and louder, feeling anger at everybody and everything that I couldn’t do anything but scream it out.
Like the rest of the book, midcentury Las Vegas is vividly described, as they finally arrive in the middle of the night and Sylvie groggily takes in her first glimpse of Fremont Street:
“Why are there so many people out?” I asked sleepily. “Is there a fire or something?”
Walter laughed. “That’s Vegas for you, honey. Nobody sleeps here. They gamble all night long.”
“That’s the great thing about this town,” Walter said happily. “You can get married any time of the day or night. You just walk in and ask to get married, and five minutes later you’re man and wife. When they say ‘no waiting period’ they really mean it.”
Sylvie manages to persuade Walter to wait until the morning to go to the justice of the peace, and when he’s in the motel room, out like a light, she weighs her options and decides to make an escape.
Walking around with no cash, possessions or plan, she’s noticed by Vic, a college-aged lifeguard at a motel pool. Sylvie is relieved as the reader to finally encounter one non-predatory character, and she begins to confess everything to him, starting with her real age and the predicament with Walter, and quickly moving on to everything else, including the molestation at the hands of her foster fathers. Vic is sympathetic, but also the voice of reason, and he sneaks Sylvie into an empty room at the motel and arranges for her to get some much-needed sleep. That evening he takes her out for dinner, dancing and a tour of Las Vegas. Of course, within hours Sylvie is head over heels:
He loved me. I knew right then that Vic loved me. He loved me enough to risk his job for me, to spend his hard-earned money for medical school on a deluxe lunch for me, to hug me and kiss me but not to try anything else, even if we both wanted to.
Eventually Walter turns up to try and drag Sylvie to the altar, but Vic scares him off with veiled threats about the Mann Act. He also has some Real Talk with Sylvie:
“Oh, Sylvie, you don’t love me either. That’s just what I mean. You’re ready to think you’re in love the minute someone does something nice for you. Or you think they love you. You’re going to get yourself into trouble that way.”
The book ends with a long-distance call to New York’s Child Welfare Department. While Vic promises to write Sylvie and even come visit her, she is thinking ahead to when he’ll be done with medical school, and she’ll be 23 years old. While Vic urges her to not worry about eight years into the future, Sylvie confesses to herself that it’s easier than thinking about the day after tomorrow.
Sign It Was Set in 1956 Department: While some books of the era are content to signify THE FIFTIES with poodle skirts and jumping over sharks on motorcycles, Conford goes the extra mile and has the entire contry preoccupied with President Eisenhower’s surgery for a bowel obstruction.
Sign It Was Written in 1982 Department: While set in 1956, the book was published a year after the release of John Waters’s Polyester, starring former teen idol Tab Hunter. Sylvie frequently references fan magazine stories about Tab and Natalie Wood being “just friends” and the difficulties he seems to be finding a good woman to settle down with- is it hoping too much that this a wink to middle-aged Tab’s emerging status as a gay icon?