In Kathleen Rooney’s Latest, Lillian Boxfish Finds Poetry in 1980’s New York

Lillian BoxfishIt’s the end of 1984. Rap music rides the airwaves out of car windows and into the New York night. HIV and AIDS are the subject of conversations at parties and hospital bedsides. Neighborhood borders shift as new skyscrapers, no longer awe-inspiring, block views and change the city’s skyline. And Lillian Boxfish, the star of Kathleen Rooney’s latest novel, strolls through it all, reminding us of what came before and after.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk tells the story of a woman on the eve of a new year and the eve of a new chapter of her life. We first meet her when she’s young and considering an advertisement for a job at R. H. Macy’s, which would ultimately define her career and lifestyle and would earn her the title of highest-paid woman in advertising. Never short on money, wit, or couplets, Lillian walks the streets of New York confidently as she contemplates the city’s changes over the years and how her connection to the urban landscape has nearly outlasted all of her other relationships.

Lillian made her fortune as a poetess who chided artificial love, and she was almost undone by the cracks in the love from the one man she allowed a chance–Max, her ex-husband. Their union produced Gian, their only child, and he and his family are the remaining residents of Lillian’s heart. When we meet Lilian at eighty-five, she has outlived her friends, colleagues, and her ex-husband. She’s even outlived her career, though it still shapes how she perceives the world around her:

To sell a thing-goods, services, property—one tells a story. So we, the copywriters of my generation, were told, and it was true. Now, though, it seems the language of commerce has little use for stories. Stories take too much time. The span of attention—I see it like a bridge, a span of that sort—is shortening, shortening. Or being shortened.

Here Lillian refers to her own obsolescence. Her way of thinking, her approach to the world, is dying. She is, in a manner of speaking, also dying but refuses to go without a fight. She goes for an epic walk on the final night of the year, as if it may be her last; she takes her time, walking the avenues of New York and writing verse to describe what she sees. As she passes familiar landmarks, she retells old poems and replaces old memories with new ones, writing herself back into existence, even if only for her own satisfaction. As people, including Gian, warn her she should take a cab because of a dangerous vigilante on the loose, she scoffs at their attempt to shorten her story and continues on her own terms. It isn’t until she decides to attend a New Year’s Eve party, a departure from her usual plans, that Lillian realizes perhaps it is time to create new relationships. The city has changed too much for her to go on as she has for so long. She must adapt.

Wendy, a young woman Lillian meets while walking, is throwing a New Year’s Eve party. Lillian treats the invitation as little more than fondness-turned-pity for an old woman; however, it gives her an excuse to round the corners of her past, retelling history and reminding herself that there are still accomplishments awaiting despite the fact that “the world is uncomfortable” since retiring. Her walking is a challenge to the world. As everything changes, her walks permit her access to new people and their stories.

Despite her age, Lillian Boxfish is one octogenarian who is not ready to retire from life. She meets people along her walk, such as C.J., a Filipino florist in Greenwich. She leaves an impression on him, and continues on her way, taking his story with her and leaving hers behind with him. Lillian populates the city of New York with stories by people like the three boys who attempt to rob her as she’s making her way home. Lillian’s wit is the only weapon she owns. She uses it on the boys, talking her way out of being robbed by offering a trade: her mink for the leader Keith’s flight jacket. The negotiation is not about saving her life in that moment, but the aforementioned adaptation. She takes a bit of his youth culture and leaves him with some of hers. Keith is smarter than the situation initially reveals, a trait Lillian seems to have surmised. Though not afraid for her life, she values it–as well as the lives of the boys. When Lillian and the would-be criminals go their separate ways, she no longer treats her stroll into 1985 as if it’s her last. It’s clear that she’s got a few more verses to write.

For more on Kathleen Rooney and her relationship with Lillian Boxfish, read our interview with the author here.

FICTION
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press
Published January 17, 2017

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and lives in Chicago, where she appeared on New City Lit’s list of “Lit 50 15: Who Really Books in Chicago.” Her previous works include the novel O, Democracy! (2014); Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (2009); and Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (2005). Other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, Allure, Salon, The Rumpus, and the Chicago Tribune.


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