Like the rest of us, Blythe Young-the leading lady of Sarah Bird’s wicked satire How Perfect Is That-has been royally screwed by the Bushes, although on a fairly more intimate level.
Pardon me, not by the Bushes, by the Dixes. More specifically by her ex-husband, Trey Dix the Third, and his mother, Peggy Biggs-Dix, aka “Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS,” who happens to be a ringer for Barbara Bush.
What makes me say that? For starters, Peggy Biggs-Dix, matriarch of a WASP petroleum-and-politics dynasty, has the same iron-colored hair as Babs, and she sports the same self-effacing pearls. But to my mind, the real mask-ripping moment occurs when Madame Biggs-Dix prompts the early demise of her father-in-law by engineering a hostile takeover of his oil company. “Stop her,” the old man whimpers. “For God’s sake, stop that evil bitch.”
Bird does provide the Dixes with some fictionalizing cover. We know for certain that this superrich clan of all-powerful Texas Republicans isn’t exactly the Bushes by virtue of their very proximity to them: “The Dixes and the Bushes go way, way back,” Bird assures us. Do they ever.
In the recent novel American Wife, author Curtis Sittenfeld drew inspiration from Laura Bush, but Bird’s heroine resembles the infinitely more entertaining Sharon Bush. You remember Sharon, don’t you? The ruthless blonde who, after getting dumped by Neil Bush for his rich girlfriend, tried to (allegedly, allegedly, allegedly …) put a voodoo curse on him. When that didn’t work, she threatened to write a spicy tell-all about her in-laws-a threat that mysteriously evaporated after her hefty Houston mortgage was paid off. While it’s nothing less than tragic that Sharon’s tell-all will probably never see the light of day, How Perfect Is That goes a long way toward assuaging our loss.
At the start of this cheeky comedy of manners-cum-morality tale, Blythe Young has already been booted from her palace in Austin’s posh Pemberton Heights. Her prenup-wielding mother-in-law has stripped her not only of her worldly goods, but even of the weighty Biggs-Dix surname. Attempting to maneuver her downward spiral with a little grace, Blythe has revived Wretched Xcess, her erstwhile catering-company-to-the-fabulous. Plans to profit from her social contacts hit a couple of snags. By snags, I mean the IRS, which shows up at Kippie Lee Teeter’s garden party just after our heroine, hoping to guarantee the success of her only paying gig, spikes the guests’ Cristal. Without even a chance to grab Kippie Lee’s check, tax-dodging Blythe is forced onto the lam. Where’s a larcenous ex-socialite to hide her weary head? Since she’s just slipped roofies to her best girlfriends, there’s no place left for Blythe besides rock bottom-otherwise known as Seneca House, her old college boarding house from her poverty-riddled days at UT.
At this point, How Perfect Is That becomes more than a dead-aim First Family farce. From the moment Blythe sets foot in this bluestocking commune, headed by her former roommate, the saintly Millie Ott, Blythe is forced to account for her life. It’s an agonizing process filled with dingy clothes, split ends, and self-recrimination. Seneca House becomes Blythe’s Betty Ford Center, where rent-free rehabilitation is exchanged for bruising rounds of household chores. After years of living behind the eight ball, trying to stay fit and fashionable and fascinating, Blythe rediscovers simple pleasures, like sobriety and trans fat. It’s her chance to pause and reflect:
All those years of making, then losing, money, I hadn’t noticed that music had disappeared from my life any more than I noticed that friends, movies, ethics, sex, and Snickers bars had vanished as well. When had a Snickers bar from the freezer stopped being a treat? When had all my friends mutated into connections who slowly, then swiftly, dropped me after the divorce?
Blythe realizes that Millie Ott-good, dowdy Millie-is the only real friend she’s ever had, and for years Blythe has avoided her in favor of the Kippie Lee Teeters of the world.
Books about brittle socialites who let their roots grow out to “find themselves” generally leave me cold-usually all you’re left with is a tiresome person with ugly hair-but How Perfect Is That is not that book. Millie finds that she needs Blythe as much as Blythe needs her. Millie has harnessed herself to selfless, sexless rounds of good-hearted drudgery (feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc.), and her love life is going nowhere fast. Blythe intervenes, with initially disastrous but ultimately inspired results. By novel’s end, Millie is bound for a honeymoon (albeit to India, where she’ll vaccinate the poor), and Blythe is left to continue Millie’s work at Seneca House-a not entirely humanitarian endeavor since Kippie Lee Teeter has agreed to pay off Blythe’s back taxes in exchange.
To our heroine’s great surprise, the same criminal instincts that once put her at the peak of Pemberton Heights society now make her an ideal attendant to the Austin social strata’s other extreme. So what if Blythe won’t ever possess Millie’s knee-jerk virtue? “The problem with doing good,” she discovers, “is that it is too often done by the good.” Blythe’s “real gift” to the often-reckless teen runaways she feeds and counsels “is that they know they can never put anything over on me. The ones who’ve been on the street the longest recognize me for the scammer/grifter I will always be. So they listen when I impart the sort of wisdom Millie never had access to. Like how to charm and flatter when you need to; how to get Mom’s boyfriend off you; how to pretend to be a lot better person than you are until you actually become a better person.”
By the end of this refreshing story, Blythe actually has become a better person, beginning by oh-so-painfully accepting responsibility for her failed marriage. Sure, her ex-husband Trey the Third was the smooth-talking, witless minion of his plague of a mother, but then again, Blythe married him. Finally, she can acknowledge tolerating the despicable Dixes only for fortune’s sake, that she married Trey for the money. “My original sin was greed,” she admits. “I wanted more. I wanted wretched excess … [Peggy Biggs-Dix] had the goods on me from the get-go … I hated her because she played the game so much better than I ever could.” It’s a come-to-Jesus moment with which many should be able to identify during the Bush administration’s final lap.
It’s almost irresistible to dwell on the real-life models behind Bird’s story, but to do so would be a disservice to her novel, which is a ringtailed delight for many reasons besides Bush-baiting. Not the least of these is that after only 163 years of statehood, Texas has finally got its first genuine comedy of manners. This is a banner event, y’all, a big, civilizing step forward. How Perfect Is That is the sort of Clare Boothe Luce-styled satire of big-money mores usually set in New York or London, but never, until now, in pokey old Austin. As references to Enron’s collapse and “Shock and Awe” flash through Blythe’s background, Depression-era comedies like Luce’s The Women (not to mention Kaufman & Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You and Ferber & Kaufman’s Stage Door) begin to seem startlingly relevant.
There are also hefty doses of Thackeray and Wharton in How Perfect Is That. So it’s entirely possible to see the novel as a contemporary Texan retelling of The House of Mirth in which Lily Bart doesn’t die of squalor and sleeping draughts, but instead gets a helping hand from drab Gerty Farish, then the girls go out on the town. Damn straight.
If W’s administration has done us any favors, maybe it’s having made Texas a plausible setting for a wider range of fictions. I’m not sure whether this means that Texas has become more generally American during these last eight years, or America has become more Texan. It seems significant to remember that in 1961, when Billy Lee Brammer published The Gay Place, his classic novel of Austin, he did so without naming the city-a decision made partly, no doubt, to avoid tying the book too closely to an unrepresentative region. Today, Austin can function as a fictional “anyplace.”
Like it or not, the cross of the Bush presidency is uniquely ours to bear. Since we’ve had to put up with him longer than anybody, we get first dibs on the kvetching rights-rights it would be hard to exercise more charmingly than Sarah Bird has done here.
Texan-in-exile Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. He lives in New York City.