April 15, 1999
On the Lone Prairie
When I consider author Sara Davidson's now-so-public love affair with a cowboy who didn't know about Anne Frank, I can hear my mother saying, "Honey, you could do so much better."
To which Davidson's response would surely be, "Show me how."
Davidson's new fictionalized memoir, "Cowboy," about a UC Berkeley/Columbia-educated Jewish girl who "dates down in class," quickly reached the best-seller list, thanks to a barrage of publicity that focused on the inappropriateness of the relationship. When we talked this week in her Santa Monica home, where a brown saddle sits near the front door, Davidson carried the self-satisfying aura of a woman whose bet had paid off.
Davidson wrote "Cowboy" over three years, on spec, after quitting her job as chief writer on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." She had no literary agent or publisher willing to take her on. "I couldn't get a free-lance writing job," she told me. She has no illusions about the commercial nature of her business, and even appreciates Maureen Dowd's put-down of the book as "Cowboy Feminism." "It's just ink at this point," Davidson said of Dowd's New York Times Op-Ed piece. And it sells books.
I wouldn't be adding to the hype for "Cowboy" but for one thing. Sara Davidson is visiting territory that I have been loathe to mention myself: the sorry mating habits of ambitious, high-living Jewish women in this post-feminist era.
It's just an awful cheat, I have to say. Here we are, so highly evolved that we've quit our therapists and man our own barbecues, and what do we get: the thrill of a bed and a life on the lone prairie. Garrison Keillor, in this week's issue of Salon, likens the supply of single, "well-read men over 40" to a rare specie of mountain goat. I think he's being generous. Among Jewish men, the odds are -- well, you know them yourself.
As feminists, we used to say that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. But, on second thought, maybe fish do like to pedal.
Sara Davidson's solution to the problem life on the lone prairie was to go where few Jewish women treadeth -- a cowboy poetry festival in Elko, Nev. Her affair with the fictional "Zack," a man many inches shorter and 10 years her junior, followed two marriages to Jewish men. She had been dating a television producer, the kind of guy you'd expect for a woman who grew up in the Fairfax district. But the relationship just didn't work.
"I censored myself constantly," said Davidson, who once rode ponies on La Cienega. "I was always worried he would go away."
With Zack, everything "works" just fine. He clips her toenails and gives her a back rub and likes to comfort her when she's down. Moreover, he gives up his rural life for her, just as women used to do for men, and he only whines about it once. In short, there's none of the competition between them that's killing relationships these days. Think "A Star is Born," except Norman Maine is part of the publicity tour.
Still, "Cowboy" often reminds me of the old Jewish joke my parents tell: Behind every successful man there's a woman...who thinks he's an idiot. In this case, the woman is in front of the man, and she calls him "a yokel, an insolent yokel." She grieves that even if she's paying all the bills, she'll never get him to a better restaurant than Polly's, the pie place in Santa Monica. And he's not successful at all; he can't even pay his own bills.
Nevertheless -- and here's the rub -- he is still a man. A strong, silent, knowing man who turns her life around. It's an old-fashioned romance, after all.
Is this really what (Jewish) women want? And is this really the best we can get?
The children's part of the story doesn't work out so well. Sara's children detest Zack, not only as children always do the new male in Mommy's life, but as something of an affront to cultural values that they'd been raised by. If they eventually accommodate to him, we're left puzzled and grateful there's a Jewish dad somewhere close by.
Which brings us to Anne Frank, and to us. Davidson uses her cowboy's ignorance of Anne Frank as a metaphor for the cultural, ethical and class differences between herself and him. This presumably unbridgeable gap is too quickly smoothed over for my taste, resolved by time and love. Sara continues to make Sabbath dinner while Goff, Zack's real name, participates in her children's bar mitzvah services and Passover seder. Very nice. Still, when she calls him her "partner," I'm wondering why this particular partnership works, while ones with men from her own background did not, and what she's censoring in herself in order to make yet another relationship work.
Somewhere in the brave world to come, post-feminist men and women will come together more easily, and neither will have to cut off huge parts of themselves to find comfort and love. Seldom will be heard a discouraging word.... Home, home on the range.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is the author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press). Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
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