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Miss Kansas City: A Novel

2007 Northern California Book Award Nominee

September 26, 2006

What if books were published semi-anonymously—no dust-jacket art work, no author photos or biography—just the bare essentials: title and author? It’s an idea worth considering, given the instant celebrity of anyone with a press agent, including writers. The idea especially comes to mind when considering Joan Frank’s novel, “Miss Kansas City.” It is an assured first novel by an irrepressibly talented Northern California writer, and though it arrives with a minimum of fanfare, it deserves to be part of a larger conversation.

It is 1984 in the Bay Area, and 27-year-old Alex Blue is an editor at Infinite Information, Incorporated, a publisher of software instruction manuals, “ugly paperback manuals—were birthed in litters like rodents ... they bore titles out of science fiction. Expocalc II, Centrack, SonicSpell.” She is having an affair with Grayson Merritt, the married founder of a famous company called Scallion, a man dubbed the Rebel Prince of Cookware by Time magazine.

Morton Andrea Levi, Alex’s supervisor, is the second dancer in Frank's odd emotional tango, a story with dramatic pauses and embellished starts. Mort is a closeted homosexual, as well as a closeted artist, who actually tries to be a fair and humane manager in what has been a ruthless and frequently sham industry. Mort has his own share of misery, having taken up with the receptionist, Skip Manning (he “had a megawatt face for greeting people ... Skip’s merriment ... seemed to leap at you.” It’s a relationship that, given Mort’s dolefulness and past depressing history, does not look promising.

And so “Miss Kansas City” presents us with two protagonists who are in trouble or headed for it, set against a time and place where greed and ambition were ramping up, as captured in this scene set a trendy restaurant:

“From lunchtime to evening the restaurant was packed with seething, beautiful types, their eyes casing the room. Most of them worked in luxuriant offices, so while not themselves wealthy they were steeped in wealth’s languid assumptions, its vocabulary, its furniture. Proximity made them bold. Most secretly believed they would soon be spotted, swept up, kept nicely by the very wealth they worked for. Invigorated by this, they went to long lunches, drank, laughed and flirted.”

Frank’s sharp satirical vision also gazes toward the personal: Two-thirds of the way through and we are well aware of the trials and pains visited by their families upon Alex and Mort. Alex is talking with her sister about their family history:

“Alex felt her chest sink. Hemingway was right, she thought. Families do terrible things. But Hemingway didn’t go far enough. It's their job to do terrible things. A f -- mandate. God help the family that didn't get busy and stab its kids though the heart as early as possible.”

One of the novel’s high points is Frank’s portrayal of Scallion, its ethos and values that seem to boil down to shtick and serve as a bellwether of late-stage American capitalism, refurbished with new jargon and party tricks. It’s an accurate profile of more than one pretentious ’80s high-end retailer, complete with descriptions of mission statements and six-figure store buildouts by world-class architects:

“The store’s catalog had gained notoriety, its language sonorous, calm. To buy from Scallion was not only to make a statement but to appear—and this was crucial—to care not at all about making statements. An anti-statement statement. The cookware and dining sets would age softly, like beloved leather.

“Their prices were stratospheric.

“The concept, Gray explained, was called ‘taught valuation.’ You paid for a thing once, very highly. Then you treasured it for life.

“... Yet something in Alex could not imagine that at his center, Gray really took all that marketing gabble seriously. Taught valuation? The phrase rang like another term she’d heard somewhere that scraped at her, made her irritable: learned helplessness. Taught valuation. If you focused on it, it poofed away like dust. Alex wondered whether a man like Gray could not at heart know that beneath all those words, he was simply selling things.”

“Miss Kansas City” is noteworthy in its ambition and scope, especially for a narrative that unfolds in slightly under 250 pages. Her story is buttressed by characters that are minor but not incidental—Alex’s sister Maddie, who appears to have it “all” but of course doesn’t, Kamala, the workplace den mother who cheerleads her colleagues in their meaningless paycheck-driven lives and Roy, Maddie’s philandering airline pilot husband, whose shadowy presence provides the book with its title.

By the end of “Miss Kansas City,” the chaos and havoc in Alex’s and Mort’s lives play out in unexpected ways. But by then Joan Frank has delivered such a skillfully rendered depiction of ordinary lives gone awry, that she can be forgiven a measure of redemption and hope. Alex and Mort are deserving of as much. We shouldn’t mind.
Robert Birnbaum is a New Hampshire writer.