It seems that with Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk Kathleen Rooney may have invented a new form of fiction—the ambulatory novel. That is what it is, the title is absolute truth in advertising. Lillian Boxfish takes a walk on New Year’s Eve and in the course of her walk visits the touchstones of her life.
Rooney based the broader outline of Lillian Boxfish on the life of Margaret Fishback, once the most successful woman in advertising who also built a reputation as a poet. Born in 1900, she was proudly and boldly a single working woman, the highest paid woman in advertising, and a successful poet. She eventually married, but later in life, having proved she could successfully defy the norms of the day and make her own way in the world. Rooney used Fishback’s own poetry in the book, giving us an authentic insight into that remarkable woman while gifting us with the equally remarkable Lillian Fishback.
I lingered over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk because it was so enjoyable. I would pause and reread some witty conversation and enjoy the sheer humanity of it. Lillian is one of those people who loves people. There are lots of people who love humanity in general, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty, they hold back and reserve their love only for the collective. Lillian talks to strangers, to a night watchman who yells at her, a limo driver, to rude pretentious snots, and even to potential muggers. It’s not just that she has a social fearlessness, though she does, but it’s also that she’s genuinely interested.
There is a common theme running through Lillian’s memories and her encounters—a respect for the mind and for reason. Quite early on her walk, she asks, “Given that the majority of communication to which we are subjected in a day consists of advertising, if nearly all of that advertising insists on regarding us as pampered children, what does that do to us?” She resists treating anyone childishly, even children, and she won’t be treated as a child herself. She even walks out of a panel discussion when the modern advertising execs promote their more scientific form of persuasion, short-cutting reason. This kind of thinking is so important in this era of propaganda and clickbait fakery.
Lillian loves people and she loves New York even those this is Dec 31, 1984 and violent crime was nearing its peak. Bernhard Goetz had just shot four men, but had not yet surrendered, so fear of the vigilante and of crime was at its peak. Yet for Lillian, she believed in the people and the city. “So many careers and fortunes are made by expecting the least and the worst of people. And yet people are rarely so disappointing. The city has taught me that.”
I marked so many clever quips, I think Rooney could consider a Wit & Wisdom of Lillian Boxfish for her next book. I would certainly rush to read it.
- Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press
- Kathleen Rooney author site
- Margaret Fishback at Poetry Foundation
- Margaret Fishback at The New Yorker