|A Review by Rebecca James|
My Sister from the Black Lagoon, by Laurie Fox paperback fiction, 334 pp.
Lorna Person draws balloon families, little round circles with mix-and-match faces, four to a family, mother-father-sister-brother. In her short life she's drawn hundreds, maybe thousands of these families, none of which bear the slightest resemblance to her own household. "I was born into a mentally ill family. My sister was the officially crazy one, but really we were all nuts." Lorna's sister Lonnie is a tough-talking tomboy ("Too many Cagney films, Daddy says,") whose skull necklace and half-shaved blond head make everyone a little nervous. She's got a yen for Yiddish, though, and her quick-thinking little sister has already learned that shtick is a great way to calm Lonnie down: "Lonnie, get your big tookis down here, you meshuganah Creature from the Black Lagoon."
By anyone else, this story may have been depressing, but author Laurie Fox manages to convey the unusual twists in the family's growing pains with humor and honesty. The narrator of My Sister from the Black Lagoon never fails to see her sister as a 'person', even when she is disguised by medication, unwashed skin and men's clothing. Lorna, frustrated and even scared, still sees the comic value behind Lonnie's tirades. Laughter, after all, is one of Lonnie's goals, one of the few pleasures she gets out of being "a freak and a mutation." Even as a young girl, Lorna is able to express the depth of her sister's problems while remaining convincingly childlike. In the first of a series of alternative homes, Lonnie is dragged off to the state hospital. Although she has much more serious problems, she is accused of not behaving like a girl. Lonnie will not return home for several months, not until she promises to wear a dress (a promise that is incredibly short-lived).
Fox has created a semi-autobiographical novel of life in the early fifties' San Fernando Valley in your average Jewish household with a mentally ill child in it. In other words, a completely original, funny and complex story of Lorna's first twenty years coping with her sister's illness. Her father is kept busy with his job at ABC and Zolotoning the entire house with a spray-on mural of the ruins of Pompeii. Mom "Meeshy" is usually in bed with a headache or carting the girls to therapists, and Lonnie and Lorna play crocodiles using the family's thongs (yep, flip-flops can be pretty scary with the right growl). All too frequently, Lorna is overshadowed by her big sister's outbursts and rages. To compensate, she creates entire fantasy worlds in her head. Lonnie also lives in a world of fantasy. Her world is less traditional, though, and therefore more offensive, and usually involves two-headed, three-armed creatures; later she'll graduate to boa constrictors and take to calling herself 'John'.
Lorna's fantasy world also becomes more complex as she grows older. A talent for theater draws her first to the junior high and high school stages, then to the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early 1970s. She's been so wrapped up in her illusions that she never had time to be bad, so her wild new hippie friends swear she has a PhD in goodness and innocence. Her drama instructors apparently agree: she's been cast as Glinda the good witch of Oz so many times she can cast a spell in her sleep. Ultimately, Lorna chooses the role to burst through her mylar/glass bubble and let the real Lorna Person emerge. A twelve-page soliloquy on stage as the chain smoking alter ego of Glinda represents a major breakthrough for Lorna's self-acceptance and confidence, as well as a merging of her fantasy world and reality.
It is also in theater that Lorna and her best friend Charlotte discover the "bitchy wit" of The Boys in the Band, and fall madly in love with nine homosexuals. "None of them is out of the closet and, to be fair, it's unclear who is and who isn't gay...Each night after rehearsal, Char and I retire to Denny's for a deft psychological review of the cast and what we consider a penetrating analysis of gay culture...Gay culture offers us something we hunger for: it weds style to intellect, tragedy to ecstacy. The outsider becomes a hero, and justice is served!" In a way, this helps Lorna process Lonnie's ever-changing presence in her life. Lonnie, who has been bounced from therapists to special schools to multiple group homes is now almost unrecognizable. She's still her same old wisecracking self, but she binds her breasts and clips her hair short to hide any evidence of her sex. Lorna swears that if she didn't know better, Lonnie is the toughest dyke she's even seen.
Without a doubt, one of the best things about Laurie Fox's My Sister from the Black Lagoon is her unflinching ability to become Lorna at the exact age from which she is speaking, complete with embarrassing spirals into adolescent depression and really bad poetry caused by the inevitable first love. Fox's humor has an edge to it that won't be ignored. An enjoyable book with a serious topic that is approached with intelligent wit and a feel-good (but realistic) ending, My Sister from the Black Lagoon is a great break from beach fluff or the usual depressing memoir and so-called 'serious' literature.
Rebecca James is the Assistant Manager of Browseabout Books on Rehoboth Avenue. She thinks that her sisters may also be creatures from the black lagoon, but mom won't tell.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 12, Aug. 27, 1999