There is a fictional city called Onkwedo in a real place called Upstate New York. It is the seat of Waindell University — a prestigious but non-existent scholarly institution with a famous rowing team — where the great (and real) Russian-born writer Vladimir Nabokov once taught. Barb Barrett was living in Onkwedo with her husband and two kids (Sam and Darcy, all fictional) when her marriage broke up and she lost custody of the children. Her beloved father and cousin have died. On her own and determined to prove herself a fit parent, she buys a house that had once been occupied by Nabokov.
(In Ithaca from 1948 to 59 Nabokov rented several houses, mostly from Cornell faculty members on leave). Barb supports herself by responding to consumer complaints for the Old Daitch Dairy (fictional, but the name is borrowed from a real Downstate dairy company). She also tries to tune up her housekeeping skills and one day, while performing “one of those boring jobs of which life is made”, Barb comes upon a stash of discarded 4×6 index cards.
Nabokov, in real life, wrote drafts of his stories on index cards. By right of salvage, the tormented, lonely woman may have come into possession of a work of cultural significance, an original Nabokov story about baseball legend Babe Ruth. “Cleaning Nabokov’s House” is a rollicking, disturbing and emotionally realistic novel by Leslie Daniels. It’s created from everyday absurdities, personal experiences and a good dose of Aristotle’s probable impossible. Barb seeks out an entertainment lawyer in New York City, who recommends a literary agent in Onkwedo named Margie (hard-G) Jenkins, at which point “Cleaning Nabokov’s House” becomes something of a buddy-story. The Babe Ruth manuscript by the author of “Lolita” may or may not be authentic and, anyway, it seems to be missing a chapter.
Though she knows little about baseball, Barb tries filling the literary gap, gratified that she can give something to the world. Meanwhile her ex-husband has taken up with a social worker and will move with her and the children to Oneonta, a hundred miles away.
I didn’t think grown-up life would be like this. I didn’t think it would be all about being stuck in coffee shops with people who don’t love you and don’t have your best interests in mind, and having to hash it all out. But it turned out that adult life was nine tenths just that.
Chocolate and tears go fine together. It’s the salt. Bitter plus sweet is an unbalanced taste; add salt and it’s complete.
I looked at John. Since I could neither speak nor smack him in the face, I had no idea what to do. He was waiting for me to say something, I thought. Then I realized that he was only waiting for the check. I fished a five-dollar bill out and put it on the table. I stared into my cup. I had never wanted to pour bad coffee on anyone more in my whole almost-forty-year life. But I had missed my chance, spilled or drunk it away, and now my cup was empty.
— from “Cleaning Nabokov’s House”
As Barb Barrett opens up, she also recognizes that the ladies of Onkwedo are suffering from a certain lack of passion. So in an act of erotic entrepreneurship Barb renovates an abandoned country house, chastely auditions several studs from the Waindell rowing team and quietly puts out the word that the high-class cathouse is open for kinky business. The venture is a success.
If the scenes with Margie and the details about judging and launching a book ring true, it’s because Leslie Daniels has written her first novel after many years as a literary agent and editor. A native of the Philadelphia area, Leslie holds an MFA from Vermont College and worked for several years for the Joy Harris Literary Agency. She was the fiction editor of Green Mountains Review from 2005-2010. Her short stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, New Ohio Review and other publications, and have been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Leslie Daniels lives in Ithaca, in one of the houses really occupied by Vladimir Nabokov.