Goddess of sad laughter, provocateur of domestic chores, boaster of female/feminist angst, writer Hilma Wolitzer has been a hero of mine since I attended a fiction workshop she led at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, almost forty years ago. The list of presenters was rich in male literary personalities, including Tim O’Brien, John Gardner and Howard Nemerov, among others. From the first day, crowds of admirers followed them.
Hilma was more discreet – more like one of us than one of them – but when she read an excerpt from her then recent novel, “In the Palomar Arms”, the range of her talents was fully visible.
The scene involved a husband and wife, Kenny and Joy Bannister, at home in their New York apartment. A salesperson from On-Guard, Inc. was demonstrating the features of home security systems using before and after depictions of a home similar to Bannister’s. Against the background of a cozy fire in the fireplace, a woman sat at the piano. Two children, a boy and a girl, frolic with the family dog. A man, presumably the pianist’s husband, had an arm around her shoulders. He seemed to be singing, his mouth open “in the perfect O of happy singing”.
The following visual captured the aftermath of a break-in with no alarm installed.
“The woman was still sitting at the piano, but from a strange and unnatural angle. Her sheet music was strewn around her and splattered with blood. Cupboards and drawers were open, their contents tangled and spilled.
The husband, riddled with extensive wounds, was obviously dead. The O in his mouth, rounded in shock, no song.
The children were in the clutches of two masked men, while four or five others ransacked the room. One of them held the gun that had shot the dog. The scariest knockout blow was the hearth, now devoid of fire.
Wolitzer made dark humor’s esteemed literary audience laugh while exploring how fear was a marketing tool even in the early ’80s.
Fast forward to 2022. At 91, Hilma is alive and well. His writing skills, sharper than ever, always sizzle with a kick of irony. Her latest publication, “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” includes stories from the 1960s through the 80s, first published in magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and Ms.
His publishing credits are impressive, including nine novels, four children’s books and a non-fiction book on writing. The recipient of a Guggenheim and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she also received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. However, when readers hear the surname Wolitzer, they are more likely to think of his daughter, Meg, who launched her own distinguished literary career while still a student.
Hilma didn’t publish until she was 44, when the Post published her first short story, and she never took her success for granted. In one Interview with the LA Times she has described herself as a “late bloomer”, admitting that she was brought up to be a housewife.
“I followed the plan,” she said. “My writing was a surreptitious ‘hobby’, something I did alone in rare moments. I followed that old advice: “Write what you know”. Thus, my first fictions take place in the familiar terrain of supermarkets, playgrounds, bedrooms and kitchens.
The main story of “Today a woman went crazy in the supermarket” is told by a young woman who is pregnant with her first child. Her pink images of impending motherhood are turned upside down when she sees a mother of two young children blocking the aisle.
“There is no end. I have tried and tried,” she insists, “and there is no end. Ask Harold. Ask anyone, ask my mother.
Amid the noisy shopping carts of eager shoppers and calls for the manager, the would-be and as-is mothers face each other, “as if prepped for a TV commercial in which the magic product flies off the shelves, where the mark X would remain forever, unwanted and untried.
The silent desperation of her counterpart makes the young woman anxious. “I worried that my worry for her would somehow affect the child I was carrying. Wasn’t I worried two aisles back, if, when the time came, I chose good baby food, that my milk would flow, that I would be a wise and quiet mother?
Taking matters into her own hands, the mother-to-be tries to find someone who knows where the stricken mother lives. When the husband is finally located, he shows up and takes her home.
Once the hubbub subsides, the pregnant woman feels that she has somehow proven herself. The others, like a Greek chorus, wave goodbye to her as she assumes “one day they would ask me to join committees and protest groups and the PTA. My matriarchal stature had changed into a pregnant waddle. When my husband came home from work, I was sitting in the tub and crying.
She tells him about the incident and he asks, “What did you do?”
“There was nothing I could do. Nothing at all. I mean, I tried, but there was just no way I could help him.
The foreword to the book, by the inimitably best-selling creator of Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, calls the stores rewarding, funny and well-designed. “You may find – at first sight -,” she notes, “what you consider to be ordinary lives, but you will come away recognizing that each person has, in fact, an extraordinary life.”
Regardless of when each was published, the stories have a contemporary twist. “Photographs” is about abortion, at a time when “the doctors in my life were the old-fashioned, tongue-depressing kind, who probably took bribes over unnecessary but legal hysterectomies.”
‘The Sex Maniac’ reports that one was on the loose in the city apartment complex during a ‘long sexless winter’ where there were numerous sightings of the monster, but no crime was committed. .
“There had been an invasion of these widows lately as if old men were dying in labor lots. The widows walked behind the moving men, fluttering like birds. Their sons and daughters were there to oversee, looking sleek and modern next to the belongings – chairs with curved legs, massive headboards of marital beds shaking on the movers’ backs.
The last story, “The Great Escape” is topical. When she and her daughter Meg were assembling the collection, Hilma and her 68-year-old husband, Morty, came down with COVID-19. They were both hospitalized but sent to different hospitals. Hilma recovered, her husband did not.
“When I got back to our apartment,” she recalls, “it was exactly as we had left it. Dishes in the sink, a book left open on a table. Her shoes were still next to the bed and her pillow still bore the imprint of her head. It seems to have simply disappeared.
A delightful and provocative mix of wise and wise woman, Hilma Wolitzer is a writer to read for any age. During Women’s History Month, I have the honor of praising her and urging others to familiarize themselves with her work. The fact that she is still writing at 91 is enviable, although she admits that the fluidity of language she enjoyed in her youth now comes in fits and starts.
In an article by literary centershe explains, “Like a lot of people my age, I feel like I’m losing a name or two every day lately. They’re like buttons that fell off my shirt and rolled under the bed, and I can’t bend down to retrieve them. I can’t rely on my famous short-term memory anymore either… Anyone who claims age is “just a number” is either young or works for Hallmark.
“Today a woman went crazy in the supermarket” was published in August by Bloomsbury Publishing to great acclaim. It was an NPR Best Book of the Year, a NY Times Editors’ Choice, a magazine “People” Book of the Week, among other accolades.