The Women of Mink Eyes

Spoiler Alert:  SIGNIFICANT spoilers below for Max McBride’s Mink Eyes

Mink Eyes is set in 1986 and reflects the gender complexities, conflicts, and tensions of that era.

One thing that stands out about Mink Eyes is the striking contrast between the female and male characters. 

The male characters, even the hero O’Keefe, are emotionally fragile, tortured, uncertain, often downright weak, prone to addictions, not narcissistic but certainly too self-referential.  This is not a criticism of the work. The complexity of its characters is one of the virtues of the novel.  But it is very telling how much—I will hesitantly use the word “stronger”—the women of Mink Eyes are than the men.

The “women” of Mink Eyes are Kelly (only 10 years old but “woman enough” to discuss here), O’Keefe’s former wife (interestingly, unnamed in the book), Sara, and Tag.

Kelly.  This wise 10-year old loves her father despite his faults but is not blind to them.  In the first chapter, O’Keefe says to himself “the child will save you,” and it is very significant, I believe, that this is a girl child.  Interesting too are O’Keefe’s musings about Kelly’s physical beauty in that first chapter and his hope that she will be able to resist and escape the “the foolish men who would try to worship, possess, and demean her.” (p. 8) Yet O’Keefe himself becomes exactly one of those “foolish men” when he meets Tag.

Former wife.    She is not well developed (there was no need for the author to do that) so, at first glance, we cannot conclude much about her.  But there is no doubt that we know what drives this woman. O’Keefe characterizes her as a control freak, her appearances are always charged with anger (though justified in every case).  In the end, though, she shows a compassionate and downright saintly willingness to forgive.  Again, one wonders if this character will appear in future episodes—an attractive woman who has been rejected by the man she clearly loved and still loves, forced into single motherhood by that rejection, suffering the constantly reopening wound of contact with him and his foibles. She is definitely someone we want to know better. 

Sara. O’Keefe’s secretary wants to get out on the street and do “real” detective work.  She is perhaps the strongest character in the novel.  She provides many things to the narrative—

Sara supplies the role of the “servant who is much wiser than the master.”   She sees things O’Keefe does not and diplomatically but effectively calls him to account when he veers into self-deception. 

Sara is loyal and supportive, but only up to a point.  She refuses to become one of the codependent enablers that addicts so easily attract and ensnare.

She provides sexual tension but also a wise way of dealing with it.  Clearly, she and O’Keefe are attracted to each other.  Although O’Keefe does not make any overtures, he would take their relationship to the sexual level if she signaled openness to it, likely a big mistake.  But despite experiencing some temptation (on her way out of the park that Saturday afternoon she stops and turns around to look back at him), she does not give into it. This is decidedly not Eve in the Garden.  

Most significantly, Sara is a budding heroine, courageous and shrewd, who will seize any reasonable chance to advance her career cause as she carefully navigates through O’Keefe’s conflicting impulses to cautiously support her ambitions on the one hand and stifle her with misplaced overprotectiveness on the other.  The novel “sets up,” a possible future for her as a true heroine, at least co-equal, maybe even superior, to O’Keefe himself.

Tag.  This is not the typical noir femme fatale.  Not in any way except for her beauty.  This is not Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.  In fact, I would characterize Mink Eyes as something other than true, typical noir.  This is something I would propose to call, paradoxically perhaps but truly, “white” noir.  These people are not prone to evil-doing though there is a moment in the book when O’Keefe teeters on the edge.  These are characters of tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, people who make errors of judgment that lead to tragic consequences.  Tag is many things, but in this context, I will limit myself to contrasting her with the men who so much dictate her fate.  She is by no means just an exquisitely beautiful sex object. She has been wounded but not destroyed by the evil ministrations of her father. Her pathetic husband would not survive a moment without her caretaking.  O’Keefe acknowledges more than once that her will is much stronger than his own.  She is an athlete, an expert horsewoman, who in the end is the only one with the physical skills and mental wherewithal to escape if she wants—but for a holding on to something she should have let go.

I will end this right where the author did.  In the final sentence of the novel O’Keefe makes a choice.  This modern Magi, who has been futilely following stars all of his life, stops short of following them to a male child in a manger.  Instead, he turns his back to the stars and walks “toward the sound of the little girl’s voice.”  He may have become a wise man after all. 

 

 


By Max McBride
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