‘Come to the Window’

  • Preston Browning. For the Recorder/Photo by Trish Crapo

By Preston Browning
Sunday, December 10, 2017

‘Come to the Window’ by Carl Doerner

Published by the
Wooster Book Company


Carl Doerner, an essayist, historian and creator of  documentary films, has produced an exceedingly interesting novel entitled “Come to the Window” — one for which he has drawn on his own experiences in overseas reporting to create.

 It is a book with several unusual features, including a style of narration involving a mother (Lena) and son (Morgan) who have been apart for decades and who relate their many adventures after Morgan, a journalist, returns from years of assignments covering war in Chile, El Salvador and other countries.

More surprising are the vocations of Lena: For a number of years she’d been the madam of a bordello located in a farmhouse near Columbus, Ohio. Possibly even more surprising is the fact that while Lena knows this man is her son, it is only as their dialogue progresses that Morgan comes to realize Lena is his mother.

 One of the key subjects of this narrative is the ubiquity of war in the 20th century and the psychic dislocations war causes individuals and families. Lena’s house of ill-repute is actually a home, one where genuine love among the occupants provides healing from life’s injuries.

Upstairs, Lena’s “girls” entertain the men who visit this establishment — but they also cook, bake bread, wash dishes, and help in the vegetable garden. Lena’s brother Harry, who struggles with Tourette syndrome, also entertains at the piano with his unique blues playing.

The novel opens in the early spring of 1945 as World War II draws to a close in Europe. Lena and her friend Paula, both members of the WAC — the Women’s Army Corps, the female branch of the U.S. Army — are being rotated home from France, where they’ve served with advancing American forces, bearing witness to death and destruction in endless villages and towns.

Their service together in this terrible time has helped the two women develop a rich friendship. But they also discover, during a moment of physical proximity, that they are attracted sexually. The question of what to do with their lives as they return to civilian status is resolved when they decide to create a life together in the long-abandoned Ohio farmhouse.

Indeed, a major motif of “Come to the Window” is the relative ease with which apparently heterosexual women undergo a transformation into lesbian relationships. For example, at one point Morgan describes how Katherine, “the love of his life,” has left their marriage to be with a friend, Christine. 

Several of the novel’s characters, particularly Lena, who as an adolescent was raped by her alcoholic father, reflect with penetrating insight on how the general collapse of a coherent social and intellectual culture during war affects all aspects of human life, sexual relations perhaps most of all.

Morgan also reveals a traumatic incident from his early adolescence, when two older boys sexually assaulted him. I think it is fair to say that in this novel the defilement of human relations through violent sexual acts becomes a metaphor for the widespread brutality and decline of empathy in the modern era: It’s war at the individual level.

War in Latin America

In addition, because of Doerner’s longstanding concern with and knowledge of American interference in Latin American countries — the multiple invasions, coups, subversion of democratically-elected governments and proxy wars in countries such as Guatemala — it is hard not to conclude that Morgan, the hard-driving foreign journalist and lover of history, is a stand-in for the author.

At one point, Morgan describes to Lena the unspeakable horrors of El Salvador’s prolonged civil war of the 1980s; it’s a subject Morgan knows all too well, having reported from the scene, just as Doerner once did.

As they experience, through the novel’s characters, the depths of depravity to which leaders of nations can sink, readers of “Come to the Window” may feel the horrors of war much more acutely than they would through a  newspaper report.

Perhaps “hearing” a bit of what Lena hears also drives home the point. Morgan had been living with a group of Salvadoran guerrillas, and he describes, in chilling terms, the atrocities the Salvadoran army commits against innocent civilians.

“Soldiers of the National Guard came to Cinquera town,” Morgan tells his mother. “They pillaged, raped young women and tortured and killed a number of civilians living there. If a husband was missing, it was presumed he was away with the rebels. The wife would be shot. Seven thousand lived in a town that is now rubble. It’s a boundlessly brutal war, and our government is aiding the slaughter.”

A bloody century   

What, in the end, is  “Come to the Window” about? And why that title? I would say that in chapter after chapter, Doerner provides a sobering picture of the collapse of a structured, coherent social order in the 20th century.

In fact, the title, a phrase from the poem “Dover Beach,” by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, says more than casual reflection might suggest.

Arnold’s poem is about that near-universal collapse of belief in any cohesive religious, moral or societal order mentioned above. Referencing the back and forth motion of the ocean’s tides, the poem’s narrator asks his beloved to “come to the window,” where he draws an analogy between the tide and the ebb and flow of human existence, particularly the “ebb and flow of human misery.”

Such misery drives the narrator to express about as harsh an indictment of the modern era as one is likely to find in the English language. Here’s the final stanza from the poem, written in 1867: 

“Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, /Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

“Come to the Window” explores some of that same bleakness, as Doerner offers his reader a mini-history of the West during the past hundred years — its wars, depressions, changing mores and sexual practices. Yet the author also offers a brighter note through the development of his characters, as Lena and Morgan learn more about each other and Morgan also begins to make a connection to his long-estranged father.

In the end, Doerner seems to be led by a prudent understanding, much like that of the narrator of “Dover Beach”: that faithfulness in personal relations redeems the corruptions of the times, or at least provides some relief from the inevitable “misery” that is humankind’s destiny.

“Come to the Window” is an intelligent and engaging novel, one that I recommend without reservation.

Preston Browning is an author, a retired English professor and the longtime director of Wellspring House, a writers’ retreat in Ashfield.

Carl Doerner is a writer and an historian who lives in Charlemont. His novel can be found at woosterbook.com/additional/window.html.