Cover image for Courting disaster
Courting disaster
Edelson, Julie.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Zoland Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
277 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Non-Fiction Central Library

On Order



By taking Tolstoy's famous dictum that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and bending it to the service of the black-comic, Southern neo-gothic novel, Julie Edelson creates an extended, inspired riff on the lure of chaos, and the necessity of order. At the center of Courting Disaster are the DiPietro's, a family whose every member is badly, deeply in need of redemption, and each of whom holds dear the conceit -- so popular in our age of therapy -- that we actually can live for the moment. Angie and Joe DiPietro, having lost a child to Reye's syndrome, have constructed a life built on well-worn, carefully mapped fault lines. Angie in the last ten years has hopscotched from one affair to another, and taken comfort in the long, boozy phone calls late at night to her best old girlfriend in California. Joe, a small town attorney, has buried himself in his work, and only lately roused himself to begin an affair of his own. Meanwhile, their teenage daughter Tess has lately embarked on a series of misadventures with cars, boys, and running away from home. All of it comes crashing down in the course of one frenzied, turbulent, but hilarious Thanksgiving week.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

How parents should deal with the death of a child is the question haunting a Southern family in this third novel by Edelson (Bad Housekeeping). Ten years after the sudden death of their five-year-old son Vince from Reye's Syndrome, Angie and Joe DiPietro, along with their two surviving children, are still struggling with the emotional fallout. Angie, a hotline worker who smuggles pot to terminal cancer cases, copes by taking serial lovers, while lawyer Joe anticipates his first affair. Rebellious teenager Tess resorts to theft and running away from home, accusing her parents, "You hate me for not being dead," while young Nick, the son they had three years after Vince died, is mostly lost in the dysfunctional shuffle, a thorny reminder for Angie of her dead child. Thanksgiving draws near and tensions rise as they plan for an overcrowded dinner that includes Angie's and Joe's lovers. Vague traces remain of what the family was like before tragedy struck, and the reader may be puzzled by the painful logic in the DiPietros' emotional schisms and communicative gaps. Angie, for instance, is meant to be the heart of the novel, yet she squanders her capacity for love and nurturance on strangers, at substantial cost to her own family. The two adulterous DiPietros, who are white, take lovers who are both people of color, and Edelson deftly portrays the awkwardness, the inevitable careless gaffes and the self-consciousness of Joe and Angie's heightened racial anxieties. By the time the DiPietros get through their nightmare Thanksgiving, readers will be relieved to find them finally ready for closure and healing. In the end, the tale of this unhappy family falters in its attempt to transform emotional chaos into a gripping drama. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Just Do It Angie slides behind the wheel and sits until the noise drains out of her head. Phones. The chirp and razz still twanging her like a sensitive filling tuned to the whine of the planet. Early shift on the crisis hot line -- Misery Central. Never that bad before the stores close. By the time she sinks the key, she's anticipating Mason's grip, his silky purple throb, and the hairs on her arms bristle. The radio blares on with the motor. She hurls into the curving blackness, and if that truck wants to race, she eggs it on to the one-lane bridge, where she flies in front -- eat my exhaust. Although she crawls up the long rutted driveway, the crate lurches to a stop, shudders, rattles like a beggar's cup. Completely off, it ticks.     Mason's pickup, Judi's Audi, Cindi's Honda, Kristi's Escort huddle in the glare from the back-door light. She gets out. The wind saws the branches, but she catches the Indigo Girls, warbling praise to the smell of their sweat. The Lilies are in. She can't bear the idea of walking past them, their lewd sanction of what they think they understand -- and, worse yet, maybe they do -- about her sexual itch. Mason says they're just curious. She could make an effort. She has a lot to share. Right. She hates the way he cuts them slack. His cool. What's that about "I find thee neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. I spit thee out of my mouth'? She thinks about going home. Any place you hang yourself is home.     Mason comes out of the garage. Angie has the panicked, shuttling look of a midstreet squirrel. He latches her waist, and his tongue melts to her strong undertow. Beneath the cold enamel, she gives off the same metallic heat as her car. Dangerous, he thinks, like an ordinary wall socket; he also thinks, springing wood, Get me some. "Hello there."     He always says this. She's told him he sounds like Grover, a wheezy blue hair ball on Sesame Street who walks the kids through their fears as though you could get the jump on life. He watched it with his own kids until their mother surprised him at Christmas with a big gold ring to match the one she'd bought herself. He put it to his nose. She didn't laugh. He considered her pout, these two nappy toddlers, and all that sad tawdry wanna-be swank, and split. She forced him out, he says. Talk about jump, says Angie, picturing the dumbstruck kids on the couch. Mason likes aggravating Angie, knowing how. He likes knowing how.     The branches scrape. Angie plugs her lips against Mason's like an eraser. "What you doing in the garage?" she asks. "You got you another ve-hic-cle?"     "Baby, you know I's a one-vehicle man." He pulls her into his warm down vest. He smells like freshly planed pine. She smells medicinal, like a Mentho-Lyptus cough drop. They rub crotches; hers grabs, and his eyes fire. He feels everything, she thinks, and then immediately she knows he doesn't. His rugged hands appreciate her tone. "Moved out here Saturday," he tells her. "The whole shootin' match."     "You're kidding me."     Crooking her head in his elbow, he steers her inside. "You gone like it" -- he contracts from her astringency -- "after while."     It sits on a concrete slab. Pink insulation stuffed between the studs. There's a window in the door they came in and another to the left over his desk that reflects hanging shelves of glowing candles: romance. Or fire hazard. The flames sway and merge on the panes like Busby Berkeley chorines. He's draped the double doors with patchwork quilts and wedged his college textbooks -- she recognizes Paul Samuelson's Economics -- in the gap between them and the slab, a statement that bothers her even as she understands it. Would it bother her if he were white? The usual unaskable question. An uneasy chair -- it slumps and balls its fists -- faces the TV, VCR, and audio system, its back to the woodworking machinery and tools. Behind more of his clever rope-and-plank shelves, on a midnight blue Iranian rug he shipped back from his post-Nam bum around the world, sit the bed, an armoire, and a night table and, on that, a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a single glass artfully arranged in the soft radiance of a hurricane lamp. Kerosene space heater, the kind that kills old folks every winter, putting out. Quilts, candles, ceramics: gifts from women. Wooden furniture -- sinuous and smooth as a horse's flank -- built by Mason. Somehow he's making the garage pretty, like a sheikh's tent. It infuriates her. She spins on him. "Christ, Mason, it's fifty degrees outside and frigid in here. Where you gonna take a shit?"     "In the big house." Can't she see the hours he spent busting his butt to get it ready for her? That shoot from the lip -- it's what he likes about her. How many women do you have to make it with before you understand one? (Before you understand yourself?) "I've put up with worse." A board over a hole. No board. Clogged hole. No hole. What would she know? Parking her creamy ass on a throne all her life. In fifteen minutes, he'll invite her to sit on his face. "Give us some privacy, dig. Thought you'd like that."     "Let me guess -- this was their idea." She jigs her head toward the house.     He squares up. "Not exactly. They got they own bit, and I don't relate." Tartly, "Seem to get on 'em. You hear what I'm sayin'."     "The Great Compromiser," she scoffs.     "Meets the Great Equalizer." Let her think what she wants; he's got her number. He dips for the remote and on swirls Pharaoh Sanders. He produces a j, ashtray, matches. "Interesting matchup," he says, cracking one for her. "Not since Jake the Snake took on Brutus Beefcake --"     She drops her purse and brings her mouth to the light, her gaze as stark blue as a desert noon. He sets the ashtray within reach.     "Let me get this straight." She drags. "You found this old derelict --" The house had been a hunting lodge. It has a stone fireplace, oak floors, eat-in kitchen, four baths. "You fixed it up" -- stabbing the joint like a stick of chalk -- "fell in love with it" -- the shimmering music feels like a summer shower -- "wanted to live in it" -- a supple baritone rolls in, the soft soap; she's not falling for it -- "so you recruited the Lilies as housemates" -- exhaling -- "and now they've moved you into the garage." Joe, Angie thinks, her husband and standard of masculinity, would have summarily dumped their worldly goods by the side of the road. She taps off her ashes.     Mason doesn't smoke: inebriants are the agents of genocide, chemical weapons in the race war. She's pluming like a cockatoo, a choo-choo; he's stationary, collected, seething. Where is he going with this high-handed white bitch? "Right now I got to have their rent to pay off my loans. Someday I'll soak these fools for the jack to make sole owner." He laughs shortly. "Came down here to do Soul City, dig." Found poverty and bullshit: two things he didn't need more of. He doubts she ever heard of it. "Now it's sole owner. Times do change."     She's passed the exit for Soul City on some interstate. It struck her as a joke, a bizarre theme park. Blue-collar blacks creating a new world in Klan country? She sees Mason brandishing a hammer, making vows. Bring up the soundtrack: "A Change Is Gonna Come." The baritone on the CD has started gargling. She doesn't know shit about Soul City. What she knows about is selfish, manipulative young women. "You cut all their wood?"     Mason imagines Judi with the chain saw -- Olyve Oyl wielding an alligator. They can't hardly keep a fire going.     "They clean?" she pursues. "Do windows?"     "They need some education in that direction. They expect --"     Yeah, Angie's daughter Tess expects -- a generation of self-righteous incompetents. All they can do is push our buttons -- all we taught them. "What about the garden?"     "Wouldn't let 'em near the garden. Don't know beets from burdock. Scared of bees. Tried to mow with the plow." He's agitating for a laugh. Does he need it that bad? Not the pussy, although thinking about it -- the swing of her breasts when she bucks, her grunts and cries, no holds barred -- the strings in his gut tug his dick. No, it's the laugh. Another gold star from the white academy, yeah, okay, but also lightening her load. Her face looks pinched. Of course, she's toking. "And then there's the weed. You don't want 'em to have that on you."     "Ah." She salaams the joint. Has to relight.     He tosses her the matches. Leon Thomas humming Allah ain't gettin' it. Mason clicks the disc to Keith Jarrett. With the opening trill, Angie seems to unfurl, like a slo-mo rose in a Moody Bible film.     "Thanks." She allows, "This feels good. You know that guy I was telling you about -- Chemo Sabe -- he's in chemotherapy? Super-Christian dude all appalled at having to deal with me?" She waves alarmed mitts. Mason nods. The flicker from the candles lights the wiry tips of his beard. He looks as warm as a bear. Or -- why do they say cold as dirt? -- warm as the encompassing embrace of turned earth. "Your dope's given him his appetite back. He gripes he gets off on it, too, poor thing. Sometimes I think only the real pills get better --" She stops because she thinks, The good die young, and sees Vince in the hospital bed, siphoned by machines. "Anyway, he's running low."     "These folks you supply" -- Mason slopes against his desk, pulling at his mustache -- "how'd they react if they knew the nigger was behind it -- riskin' his ass -- outta the goodness?" He drops a shot of humor into the resentment: boilermaker. "Like how'd they treat me on an elevator."     "You don't get good because you're sick, I know that." In addition to the hot line, Angie volunteers eight hours a week caring for the terminally ill. That's how she met Mason, at a funeral six months ago. Or what do they call it? Memorial? Remembrance? Not wake -- no stiff and no liquor. This was for a sweet old darling from his church, Miss Dealie -- pancreatic cancer. Angie used to sing her "Baby Face." She was in at the same time as this white bitch with a heart problem who called you dummy and wouldn't let Erna bathe her. Then it was, "Erna's so intelligent she must have some white blood." She got better. Had to be sent home. When Erna takes shit from some bigot in the name of unconditional love, Angie wants to scream. "This garage bullshit makes me want to scream," she tells Mason, crushing the roach, "or scratch your eyes out. Don't you know tomorrow never comes? And meanwhile you're living in a garage."     "'Preciate you buttin' into my business. Meantime, you won't have to exercise yourself over makin' so much noise" -- he snarls a grin -- "out here in the Jiffy Lube."     Low blow. She sees the sulky faces of the Lilies -- all right, she doesn't know them -- sitting around the TV, almost audibly clucking when she and Mason come out of his room, slanting sidelongs at his groin, his hands. "The fucking handyman --"     "That's up to me." He's thinking how ugly her mouth can be -- big horse teeth. Clamped to his dick -- her tongue undulating like a squid. He's been wondering when she'd file a claim. Married women, in his experience, go for binding arbitration or at least no-fault insurance early on. Security, even in adventure -- purchase. Angie's avoided all negotiations not sensual. So that falling back, unsprung, undone, and she's a draft stirring the candles, he has felt -- used. The black stud. Does she really think he would dip his wick in those silly limp lilies?     "Ask me if I care," she retorts. And why should he tolerate her sick, ridiculous excesses, her pus-pallid cellulite, squeezing into her stingy schedule? Hey, Mason, I got an hour; drop your pants. She throws a quick look at his knotted arms, the taut line of his lips. This is supposed to be fun. "I'm outta here."     "Suit yourself."     She doesn't want to go. She wants him to eat her out until the yammer in her brain jams and the tension spasms, novas. Has she talked her way out of it yet? I'm glad I'm not your union rep, mister." Or your pimp, she thinks.     "Wait'll I Sheetrock it." He takes her wrist and draws her to him. His eyes insist on her assent. It galls her, which also trips her switch. "Previous owner had a workshop out here, so I got all the juice I'll ever need. Have us a fine little one-room country shack."     Thunk. She recognizes the blues riff -- "Tobacco Road"? but us ? Look out!     "How 'bout your very own shithouse, seat carved to the specifications of your sweet ofay ass" -- he mellows down, groping it; good gum, he thinks -- "hand-rubbed till it shine like glass." His grin prods hers. "Quit your bitchin', baby. Let's get to it."     She tries to check her watch, but he forces her arm behind her back and pastes one on. The pressure of his wanting her pries her open. They shuffle to the bed, and he lifts her onto it. She clasps his neck. "I'm thinking slave quarters, Mason." It catches in her dry craw like an aspirin. What are friends for?     "And where you live, baby?" Mason's eyes shrivel to raisins. "Tell me 'bout that little room you gots all to yourself."     Angie yips a laugh. She feels penetrated, turned out. This piano player never seems to come to the point. "You got any music that's a little less -- cerebral?" She brushes off the watch cap to kiss his downy bald spot. She wants to suck him steaming, she wants to snug him like the meat in a dumpling and steam.     Mason half-rises to aim the control: Eiseleys. They grin.     "You are good," Angie admits; that, or she's doing the same things every time she's here and forgetting. "But I'm never taking my shoes off."     His tongue pulses in her mouth like a sparrow. He boosts aboard and pours her glass, settles against the pillows. They sit knee to knee. The whiskey ribbons down her throat. She hitches her legs over his thighs, hunkers closer, and feels his dowser twitch. The only sentient being on the planet that's always glad to see her. "Sorry," she yields, resting her elbows on his shoulders.     He unlaces and pulls off her sneakers, one at a time. "Yeah. Well. Just don't mother me."     "Hey, man, I just spent two solid hours mothering. I'm a professional mother." She can't hear the word without fucker implied.     "Bad tonight?" He licks his fingertips and massages the bones in her neck.     "No, uh-uh." Her nipples are pricked up from the chill. She arches into his vest to scuff them against his waffled cotton chest, nibbles his ear, the mahogany knob of his cheek. "You heard about that kid died in the wreck? Crashed into a tree?"     He links his hands over the small of her back, slips down inside her pants to grasp the cool swell of her hips. "Drugs or alcohol?"     "He wasn't driving. Girl Tess has known since grade school -- claims she abstains. She walked away without a scratch. Tess played with them both. I've kissed their boo-boos."     He tables her glass and kisses the spokes by her eye.     "Think about her , you know? Hard to bone up for the big test when everybody knows you just snuffed the Most Popular Boy."     "I hear you." He thinks about making a "bone up" joke, his fingers grazing the dewy corn silk of her muff. Tasteless. He never understands how they move from these heavy raps to laughing out their asses, tussling like puppies. No matter how he works at it, he can't shape their time together. Green wood. Or warped.     She licks the rim of his nostril. "So all the teens in town want to script themselves into the tragedy. I musta heard from twenty of his best friends. Spread himself kinda thin, in life as in death."     "You cold, woman," he burrs in her ear, while her body softens under his hands like wax. She pulls back and fixes a serious blink on him, like a nun on a schoolroom vandal.     She's thinking about a guy who called tonight. Moved back South from Alaska a month ago, and he can't cool off. Can't sleep -- he's sweltering, dripping sweat. He keeps the windows up, runs the air conditioner. The wife is freezing. She shuts; he opens. Tonight she stormed out, took the Blazer, he doesn't know if she's coming back. The marriage is falling apart; he wants to talk global warming, El Niño, the hole in the ozone, the climatic effects of volcanic eruptions in the Philippines. Angie told him, "Hey, buster, this ain't weather watch. There's kids out there trying to ice themselves." He said, "Lucky they got you to shoot the breeze with. I feel colder already." He sounded three sheets to the wind. He ought to trade homesteads with Mason, she thinks. Something keeps her from mentioning him. It's not ethics.     Mason feels up inside her to find where she's gone. Complicated women -- his weakness. This relationship is all wrong, going nowhere -- nowhere to go -- she's white, she's married, she's got kids, she's a head case, but she gets to him. Her hardness, her straight grain. Pisses him off. What he is and what he ought be two entirely different things. "Don't mean nothin'," he murmurs. "Drive on. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Julie Edelson. All rights reserved.

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