A year after the first Nickelodeons opened in 1900, the wiseasses at the Edison Company filmed and unleashed The Kansas Saloon Smashers, a raucous low comedy in which an Irishman drinks, a cop falls on his butt, and that old battleaxe Carrie Nation lays waste to a flimsy bar set. It's dumb, dopey fun but also strong evidence for the complaint that our media hold some grudge against social conservatism. Creating what is pretty much the first mass-distributed filmed entertainment in our history, the Edison crew sought to unite the nation in laughter at an uptight Kansan.
Throughout The Chaperone, her fourth and best novel, Laura Moriarty mines first-rate fiction from the tension between a corrupting coastal media and the ideal of heart-of-America morality. In the early 1920s, a teetotaling Wichita wife and mother in her late thirties — who once heard Nation herself speak — agrees to accompany a neighbor's teenage daughter on a trip to New York City. There, in a series of exquisitely paced scenes of revelation and humiliation, the wife and mother, Cora, will find her beliefs challenged and her deepest secrets exposed. The daughter — a world-class flapper beauty, as braless as her chaperone is corseted — will take dance classes at a modern academy, let grown men moon over her, and come several steps closer to showing Kansas and the world what-for once and for all: She is Louise Brooks, just a couple years shy of fame but already a star everywhere she goes, her black bangs framing her face like the curtains frame the stages of the Broadway playhouses frequented by Louise and her chaperone.
Brooks' may be the novel's marquee name, but the story's heart is Cora's. With much sharpness but great empathy, Moriarty lays bare the settled mindset of this stolid, somewhat fearful woman — and the new experiences that shake that mindset up. Especially moving are passages that deal with what doctors used to call "sex ignorance": Following a troubled childbirth, Cora's husband stops joining her in bed, and she can find neither the language to express her disappointment and desire nor even the certainty that that desire isn't somehow immoral — a common concern in an era when the Comstock laws prohibited the mailing of information about birth control or any other indecent material.
Time with Louise Brooks loosens Cora up of course, just as it soon would much of America, once the great beauty started hoofing it half-dressed in films like 1926's The American Venus, where she was billed as one of "a galaxy of glorious girls." The relationship between Louise and Cora is predictably fraught, with Cora often lecturing her about with received and unexamined Kansas wisdom like "Men don't want candy if it's been unwrapped. Maybe for a lark, but not when it comes to marriage." Louise argues and sulks, and only truly seems to come to life when sneaking away to talk to boys or at the theater.
Moriarty excels at capturing lost Wichita and New York City streets and stations in quickly sketched detail, but her strongest writing, here — perhaps the strongest of her career — concerns the theater and its power. Cora and Louise hit every hot show of 1922, from that year's Ziegfeld Follies, where Cora is somewhat chagrined at showgirl flesh and Louise is annoyed that the smiles look fake, to the landmark Shuffle Along, the first popular musical staged by an all-black cast, crew, and creative team for mixed audiences. Louise gets Cora uptown to Shuffle Along without letting on what the show is. As African-Americans take seats around her, Cora feels great confusion and nervousness: In every other theater she has ever been in, from Wichita to Broadway, blacks had been consigned to the balcony. Cora doesn't think of herself as hating black people — she is quite fond of her servant, Della, after all — but her initial response is something like what former National Review writer John Derbyshire admitted to in his terrible recent blog post about what he tells his sons about dealing with African-Americans: She feels that she should get away.
Cora doesn't. Instead, she skeptically watches the show — a love story — and then, eventually, she is tapping her foot at the jazz syncopation that the Wichita Eagle had warned her about and, by the end, dabbing away tears. It's a bravura passage written with bracing honesty, but Moriarty isn't finished, yet. On occasion in The Chaperone, she smashes writing-workshop decorum and vaults away from her close third-person perspective to show us the Cora of later in the century (and the book's final pages). She does so here, thrillingly: "Cora would be in her early seventies when a group of young black people in Wichita decided to sit at the counter of Dockum Drugs every day, from open til close, until they were served," Moriarty writes. This of course inspired outrage among Wichita's white folks. But: "Cora, if she were honest, would have to admit she might have been one of them had it not been for that night in 1922 when she sat between Louise and the black woman with the Marcel wave, and she watched a black man conduct a black orchestra while black men and women talked and danced and sang 'I'm Just Wild About Harry,' and black people and white people applauded them together, and nothing terrible happened."
And there it is right there: The greatest argument a writer could mount for the power of a vigorous and progressive popular media — and why the Carrie Nations of the world should fear it.