Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
I discovered Peyton Place where I imagine most kids growing up in the 1960’s did: under my parents’ bed, where along with those soft focus Oui magazines, I discovered many a tasty morsel that would whet my appetite for my lifelong love of good trash lit!
Thanks, Mom and Dad!
On the back dust jacket cover was author Grace Metalious, “this Pandora in blue jeans” looking very young in her oversized dungarees and flannel shirt, feet up, staring intently at her typewriter, hard at work. This image was a stark contrast to the standard lady author’s portrait, and a realistic portrayal of a writer’s daily grind. Both the image and the tagline “the extraordinary new novel that lifts the lid off a small New England town” promised a peek into forbidden truths.
“That’s a dirty book,” my mother said, guaranteeing I’d give it a swift read. So, in the attic space of our country home that was my adolescent bedroom, I dug into this salacious tale of the tongue-clucking New England town whose nasty underbelly revealed scenes of rape (for the frigid gal’s own good—by the high school principal no less!), more rape, incest, murder, abortion, adultery, masturbation, and sexually tinged animal abuse. And how can I ever forget the bizarre scenarios of the deranged Mrs. Page who gives her teenage son, Norman, enemas and he likes it (“Yes, Please,” Norman says after strangling a cat), and a girl who loses her arm in a carnival fun house?
No wonder it was a bestseller!
The infamous first line packs a punch:
“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.”
Double entendre intentional? It’s difficult to know with this author, but I suspect not. It does take one of the featured female characters–Constance McKenzie–a very long time to come (as in decades), she needs to be slapped and raped first by a man who knows how, but I’ll get to that. I sense that Grace spat out this delicious purple prose on the page without much intellectual insight or irony, and if she just had to get it out like so many of the characters’ orgasms, and that’s the charm of it. The best trash spills directly from the subconscious—filters be damned!
The setting of the novel, as her many descriptive passages demonstrate, was no doubt gleaned from the author’s own experiences of growing up in small town New England, where snobby townies on the good street look down their noses at the folks from the shacks. Grace seems to rest squarely between the shacks and Main Street, and her treatment of both sides of the tracks is even in its salaciousness. Flipping the lid to reveal the worms within the small town may have been shocking in 1956, but that was decades before David Lynch took a shot at it. We all know that by now. I live in a small town and can report that nothing’s changed.
What makes Peyton Place such a high mark of trash lit is the–probably unconscious—scads of deviant sexuality that pour over the page like Norman’s wet dream. Here are a few juicy bits that kept the housewives’ hands under the covers:
Your nipples are as hard as diamonds.
He bent over her and ripped the still wet bathing suit from her body, and in the dark, she heard the sound of his zipper opening as he took off his trunks.
His hand found the V of her crotch and pressed against it.
“Is it up, Rod?” she panted, undulating her body under his. “Is it up good and hard?”
“Oh, yes,” he whispered, almost unable to speak. “Oh, yes.”
Without another word, Betty jackknifed her knees, pushed Rodney away from her, clicked the lock on the door and was outside of the car.
“Now go shove it into Allison MacKenzie,” she screamed at him.
Young Grace may have been a bit repressed at the time (this was before the wild ride leading to her premature death), but her dirty, dirty mind (a Virgo no less and we have the dirtiest) cannot be disputed, which earns her a high rank in the queen’s court of trash. The sexuality described in Peyton Place is more Sade than bodice ripper, which perhaps reveals less about the quaint little town than the author herself. By all accounts, Grace Metalious, born into poverty and a hardscrabble life, was an outsider with a bone to pick. She dressed, smoked, and swore like a man and died at the tender age of thirty-nine from a failed liver due to hard living, that included a fifth-a-day whiskey habit. Money turned Grace into a party girl and a naïf with opportunistic men–her weakness I suspect. She divorced her husband, married and divorced a flashy “DJ”, and signed over her estate on her deathbed to a British lothario after a speedy marriage (that proved to be illegal since he was already married).
The creator of the franchise that raked in over 65 million died virtually broke.
There are many descriptions of her being a shitty housekeeper as if it’s easy to raise kids, cook and clean, and write a bestseller. I can imagine her in her dungarees shoving the kids out the door to go play and locking it behind them, as apparently she did to the shock of her neighbors. Mama’s gotta work. Get the fuck outta here.
There are many, many characters in the nearly 500-page novel, and most of them have enough sexual problems to pack Freud’s waiting room for centuries. Grace doesn’t always do the best job keeping track of them, but the story essentially follows the lives of three female characters over about a ten-year period.
Allison McKenzie is oddly named after the married man who spawned her, with whom her beautiful mother, Constance, fooled around with while she was a secretary in the big city. The let’s-hide-the-illegitimate-child theme is a yawn for modern readers, but it gives Constance’s character some depth. And from the shacks is earthy Selena Cross, a nice girl with brown nipples whose (step) father rapes and impregnates her till she has finally had enough and kills the bastard. Interestingly, Selena emerges as the most sensible person in the story.
Allison, the story’s main protagonist, comes off as a real C-word throughout most of the story. I suspect the sexually repressed, voyeuristic (she orgasms at the site of Selena’s stepfather molesting her), bookish Allison is Graces’ alter ego. She starts off as a chubby twelve-year-old and blossoms into a skinny, flat-chested teenager (the scene about her rubber falsies is titillating). She leaves town for the big city where she loses her virginity to a dickish middle-aged married man just like her mother and returns to Peyton Place heart-broken just in time for Selena’s murder trial. She is judgmental of her mother Constance, and seems to enjoy cock-teasing poor little fucked-up Norman of the mommy enemas (Is he gay? A psychopath? Surely Norman deserves his own trashy sequel). She also harangues poor Nellie, Selena’s cancer-ridden mother (there are several gagged-inducing references to pus-filled veins) who cleans up her shit all day long as the family maid, so much that she kills herself. The scene of swollen, blue-faced Nellie hanging in little Allison’s closet among her starched dresses is one of the novel’s highlights. After this experience (and also finding out her true progeny) Allison has a breakdown. Is this why she laughs hysterically when her best friend’s arm gets chopped off in the fun-house machinery, or further proof that she’s a real bitch? Readers can decide for themselves. Mia Farrow played her in the squeaky clean TV series. Scratch the surface of the petite blonde beauty and you may find Mia’s valentine.
Selena, the gypsy beauty from the shacks, comes off as the most sensible (thus boring) character of the bunch. She aborts her baby and kills her stepfather without guilt or remorse. In an odd casting choice (all blondes, really?) Hope Lange plays her much more neurotically in the film. For a dirty shack girl, Selena emerges smelling like a rose, sanctioned by the town she is acquitted of her crime (no one liked that asshole, Lucas, anyway), and ends up a career girl, working the counter at Constance’s chic dress shop.
Constance is a sexually repressed beauty with taste and elegance (beautifully represented by Lana Turner in the tidied-up film version for which she won an Oscar, and a comeback—her own salacious murder trial was a year later). She is the orgasm that will never come until her tall, dark, and handsome Greek lover with a Columbia degree arrives from the big city to beat it out of her, literally.
Once she has finally achieves orgasm, Constance chills into the idyll of 1950’s married life and homemaking. She loses interest in her career and passively gives into her husband’s know-it-all guidance.
A small town hoarding nasty secrets is not new, but the simmering archetypes that are the true underbelly firmly secure this novel’s (and its Pandora) a high place in the pantheon of trash lit.