It’s not exactly a secret that there is something about George Bush that makes women crazy. Not the Dauphin Dubya Bush, with that frat boy smirk and those shitty little laugh lines at the corners of his eyes – both real turn-offs to real women. But Prince George: whether it’s his gaunt Old Yankee good looks, his patrician bearing, the fact that he went to war and jumped out of an airplane, then forty years later jumped out of another one – just for kicks!!! – there is something about George Herbert Walker Bush that drives women wild. (All right, some women don’t get it, but they’re the ones who would fall for a tubby Elvis from Hope, Arkansas.)
Poppy Bush may be an acquired taste, but once that taste is acquired it is almost impossible to satiate. Lydia Millet’s protagonist, Rosemary, is both driven mad and saved by her passion for Poppy. To understand her – and her passion – you have to place Rosemary in her proper literary context. She is very obviously cut from the same cloth as the archetypal tragic romantic heroines of Great Western Lit: Hardy’s Eustacia Vye; Flaubert’s Emma Bovary; Pasternak’s Laura; Robert James Waller’s Francesca Johnson. Our heroine’s was, of course, a larger cloth; at 250 pounds (she describes her figure as “Rubenesque”) Rosemary is, as her spinster aunt from Maryland says: “Jesus Lord, big as a house.” And she’s got a lot more edge than Stacy Vye.
Before Rosemary is driven mad by George, she is saved by the power of Poppy’s unorthodox syntax. Released from a prison term she clearly didn’t deserve, Rosemary finds charity, then strength, in a line from G.B.’s first Inaugural Address: “The offered hand is a reluctant fist, but once made, strong, and can be used with great effect.” It is as if a thousand points of light turn on in her head, and she responds: “I’m there, G.B. I’m there.” Rosemary also recovers the sense of self-worth she had lost in prison, when she hears the immortal line: “My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions.” Instinctively Rosemary realizes she is much much more than a 1973 Plymouth with a busted suspension, and a dirty beige Goodwill couch.
There are inevitable digressions on the road to salvation. Our heroine must resort to one of G.B’s less-memorable lines in order to rationalize her relationship with a Korean War vet who talks through a voice box after a laryngectomy and removes his dentures and reglues them every evening at the dinner table. “And after all,” Rosemary recalls, “I was only doing what G.B. had recommended patriotically in his inspired Inaugural, i.e., ‘harnessing the unused talent of the elderly.'” Further along the road, it is not just Poppy’s language, but the need to devote more time to him, that provides Rosemary the inner strength to end yet another ill-advised love affair, this one with an undocumented alien named José. The Gulf War is beginning, yet all José ever wants to do is get in the hot tub with Rosemary and play a game he calls Dos Perros. At her wit’s end, Rosemary makes a discreet call to the Justice Department – and after a final night of Dos Perros, José makes his inglorious exit.
Finally, Rosemary is alone with her Man of Destiny, as she tapes CNN’s daily Gulf War coverage and devotes every night to her President. “At night I would fast-forward through the tape during commercials in the live coverage, until I caught sight of him. And then I’d sit there dreamily, a deer in the headlights of his transformation. G.B. was a man of action, a G.I. Joe fresh off the assembly line with special-edition gray hair. Only like those Russian dolls, there was a different G.B. inside the warlike Commander in Chief: a gangly prepubescent. The tension between them transfixed me.”
Dark Prince of Love is a deeply moving account of powerful passions – passions a girl like Monica Lewinsky could never hope to understand. But fully realized women, aroused by the raw rhetorical force of presidential declarations like, “This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait” – they’re the ones who will be lying poolside this summer, devouring the Dark Prince.
(George Bush, Dark Prince Of Love, by Lydia Millet. Scribner Paperback Fiction. 159 pages. $10.00.)