No, I’m not talking about a typical episode of Jerry Springer. These and more are some of the ongoings in Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, first published in 1956 amidst great controversy, outrage and shock has turned into one of those hidden American classics. The “Pandora in bluejeans” scarily accurate expose of small-town secrets in America including open discussions of sex, unwed mothers, desire and abuse was virtually unheard of in that time and changed the entire publishing industry as everyone knew it. While America was simultaneously thriving on an image of wholesome Leave it to Beaver goodness and fun for the entire family, a nostalgic image that persists even today of the 1950s, people were walking around with secret copies of Peyton Place and revelling in Metalious’ delicious honesty. Peyton Place was indeed shocking in 1956, and in fact it is just as shocking today.
“Indian summer,” opens Peyton Place, “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.” The sexual innuendos, rife throughout the novel, are not lost here as the main character, Allison Mackenzie, is the product of a love affair between Constance Mackenzie and a married man during her years in ‘the City.’ One of Allison’s romantic interests is sickly little Norman Page, whose mother insists on giving him barium enemas to the extent that the kindly town Doc, Dr. Swain, is worried about her mental health and little Norman Page simply dreads his return home for fear of the soapy machine. Allison, erstwhile pining away for her father whom she believes was wedded to her mother for a short time and died tragically and before his time, also has an interest in the town bad boy, Rodney Harrington, whose father owns the local mill where all Peytonians work and who is constantly on call to bail his son out of any number of issues, drunken driving and philandering with young girls. But wait, it gets better. Selena Cross, Allison’s beautiful yet wretchedly poor best friend, lives in Peyton Place’s shanty town. Selena’s step-father, Lucas Cross, is the town’s mean drunk and enacts every abuse possible against his punch-drunk wife and lovely step-daughter.
Twin Peaks has nothing on Peyton Place, and in fact I wonder if David Lynch was inspired by Grace Metalious’ evocative and disturbing account of what lies underneath the banality of small town America. While America continues to struggle in maintaining its moral highground in the international sphere, including the importance of family and moral values, this novel paints the portrait of the house of cards this image is perched upon oh so precariously. You need only Google one of the following keywords, rape, incest, abortion, alcoholism, or murder and you will see what national trends have in fact worsened since Metalious’ publication of her opus.
I had wanted to read Peyton Place since I saw a copy of it in the film Mermaids being read in a bubble bath by Mrs. Flax (Cher) and after all of those years waiting to happen upon a copy I finally found the 1963 paperback edition on the Asian side of Istanbul. A strange synchronicity since 1963 was also the year when President John F. Kennedy was assasinated in Dallas, Texas, another historic event that has been something of an obsession with me since childhood, like Peyton Place even though I had never read it. From the open lines I read with an open mouth and the occassional vocalised gasp. I was riveted, alternating horror, shock, and awe at Ms. Metalious’ bravery in creating and publishing such a phenomenal book.
If you would like a less obtuse story than Twin Peaks, read Peyton Place. If you would be interested in reading 1957’s version of American Beauty, find yourself a copy. Peyton Place is a four-alarm fire: you may get scorched while reading it, but it hurts so good.