Not until the middle of “The Last Lovely City” does Alice Adams explicitly mention the word mask, but the element that holds the fabric of this story together is Adams’s implicit exposure of the masks behind which her characters hide. Beginning with the first paragraph, in which Adams has her main character, Dr. Benito Zamora, look down at his hands and describe them as ”old beggar’s hands,” readers are forewarned that Adams is creating complex characters. How could a successful doctor consider himself a beggar?
As the story progresses, readers quickly realize that Benito wears many masks. The most obvious is his hidden longing for companionship. He is a recent widower and is driving a young, attractive woman named Carla to a party. The young woman initiated this action, calling the doctor and inviting him to a social gathering by the ocean. Her action has aroused the doctor’s curiosity. Why did she call him? He asks, ”What can this girl want of me?” He suspects that something lies beneath the surface of her actions, and the story follows his attempt to find the answers to his questions as Benito slowly and carefully removes the young woman’s mask.
During their drive to the coast, Benito steals glances at the young woman’s hair, her legs, and her thin body, while he maintains a professional conversation with her. The woman arouses both his sexual desires and his social hopes; he fantasizes that she might want to live with him, bringing life back into his darkened home. But when he looks at his hands, he feels old. And the question returns to him: What would a young, attractive woman want with an old man? Almost simultaneously, he feels a strength surging through his body, as if the signs of aging were but a mask. Behind the mask he feels the power of his youth gathering itself around his neck and chin. His eyes, he tells himself, are still as unrelenting as ever.
In one of the brief dialogs between the doctor and the young woman, another mask is exposed. Carla has been to Oaxaca, Mexico, the city outside of which Benito’s mother still lives. Carla believes that her knowledge of Oaxaca is a connection that she can share with the doctor. Oaxaca is beautiful in Carla’s world. She has visited it, staying in a fancy hotel with room service, silver settings at the dining room tables, and probably a swimming pool. But this luxurious setting is a mask that Oaxaca wears for tourists. Benito’s mother and most of the native people of the outlying areas around Oaxaca are not familiar with this opulence. When Benito thinks of Mexico, his mother, and the people who live there, he does not think of fancy hotels. He thinks of poverty and the diseases that poverty brings. That is why he has donated much of his money to building and running two free medical clinics in Mexico. Later in the story, Benito also touches upon another mask in connection with Oaxaca, one that he wears when he visits his clinics. He questions whether the clinics really need him. He questions whether he wears the mask of “Dr. Do-Good,” a title sometimes jokingly given to him for his charitable work. Are his visits to Mexico just a way to feel better than everyone else? Was he wearing the mask of self-righteousness when, in fact, all the clinics really needed from him was his money?
As the car slides down the western slopes of the coastal mountains, Benito reminisces about his youth when he often attended other social gatherings in the same seacoast town. In reflection, he sees himself as one of the more eligible bachelors. He was invited to these rich parties, because he was young, handsome, and potentially moneyed. Included in his memory is the unmasking of his hosts and hostesses. They may have invited him to their private parties but when it came down to offering him one of their daughters’ hands in marriage, their masks disintegrated rather quickly. Although he was looked at as a rising star, they could not get past his heritage. His complexion was too dark, and his name sounded too Mexican for the white people who had invited him to their parties.
It is at this point of the story that Benito remembers his wife and her death. As a physician, Benito is aware of the masks of mourners, put on to support the bereaved for the first couple of weeks after the tragedy of death but then taken off so their lives can return to a normal routine, leaving the bereaved to suffer in loneliness. He had seen it happen so many times that he was not surprised when it happened to him when his wife died. He was, however, angry and disappointed when the masks were removed, and his friends left him alone to find his own way through his misery.
There are masks to be found everywhere in this story, even in some of its simplest words. For instance, in another dialog between Carla and Benito, Carla describes the people who will be attending the party toward which they are heading. She uses the word marvelous. This word is a key word for Benito, a word that arouses unpleasant feelings. It is a cover word, used to mask quirks in personalities that are annoying. Benito likens the word “marvelous” to the word “characters,” which is a cover word used to describe irritating people.
As the story moves toward the midpoint, Benito and Carla arrive at the party, and Benito bumps into an old friend. He hardly recognizes her as she has gained weight and “her doughy face [is] tightened into a mask, behind which he can indistinctly see the beauty that she was.” This woman’s name is Dolores Gutierrez, and she chides Benito about his name, telling him he should change it because it sounds too Mexican. Dolores wears many masks, one of which is that of marrying men for their English-sounding last names, which she, of course, inherits. Dolores also wore the mask of faithful wife. Dolores and Benito, in their youth, had an affair. During that affair, Dolores suggested that Benito pay her for sexual favors, as she donned yet another mask, that of make-believe prostitute. She also confessed to wearing the mask of heterosexuality: ”I really don’t like men at all,” she told Benito and talked of her love of another woman.
Benito is unmasked, once again, when he sees Herman Tolliver at the party. Tolliver is an unscrupulous lawyer who suggested a shady moneymaking deal to Benito many years ago. It was because of this deal that Benito made all his money, was able to buy an expensive home that overlooks the city and bay of San Francisco, and was able to fund the free medical clinics in Mexico. Although the story only alludes to the details about why this deal was immoral (possibly that the so-called hotels that he bought were involved in prostitution and drugs), Benito harbors guilt. He arranges to not be told the details of the hotels’ use. He does not give interviews to curious news reporters about his works in Mexico. He is slightly irritated about the title Dr. Do-Good. And he never quite unmasks the truth behind the source of his money, even to his wife. But try as he does to hide behind his mask of respectability, when he sees Tolliver at the party, Benito is exposed, maybe not to the other members at the party but to himself.
Through the mask of death, Benito thinks about his wife, Elizabeth. The mask blocks remembrances of “petty annoyance … or even moments of boredom, irritation, or sad, failed acts of love. All that is erased, and he only recalls … the golden peaks of their time together.” This mask of death is cruel, in some ways, because it makes the longing even harder to bear. In Benito’s mind, Elizabeth has somehow become unearthly, an immortal goddess. Seeing her through this mask causes an insatiable hunger to rise inside of him, and he, almost desperately, tries to satisfy that hunger by finding a replacement for her. Could it be Carla, he wonders?
Carla grabs Benito’s arm at one point and obviously flirts with him. After Dolores pays Carla a compliment, Carla asks Benito, “Why don’t you ever say such flattering things to me?” This comment and the gesture of holding his arm make Benito’s questions grow more intense. Is she interested in him? Could she be? “Such things do happen, the doctor reminds himself.” And then he creates a mask for Carla. Although he hardly knows her, he structures her in a way that he wants to see her. Namely, he creates a mask of honesty and warm-heartedness. He makes her into someone who would appreciate his life, a life that has recently lost its value.
Dolores, on the other hand, annoys Benito. She reminds him too much of his past, a past he would rather forget. With Carla, as with Elizabeth, Benito tries to be as honest as he can. But with Dolores, who tries to unmask him with her questions about the source of his money and her comments that allude to her past intimacies with him, Benito holds tight to his mask while he fantasizes about pushing her over the railing and down into the sand. It is difficult enough to remove one’s own mask, but when someone else tries to do it, it is downright infuriating.
The story then returns to the original couple, Benito and Carla, as they walk along the beach. Carla has run out to meet him, which once again spurs Benito’s imagination, and he continues to elaborate on the mask that he has created for her. She would be a beautiful wife, he thinks. She could change the house any way she wants. ”His imagination sees … a brilliant house, with Carla its brilliant, shining center.” But Carla has a few masks of her own. For one, she is not interested in Benito romantically because she is engaged to someone else. For another, she reminds him that she is a reporter, an investigative reporter, and her flirtatiousness was spurned by her desire to do a story about him.
Immediately upon seeing Carla unmasked, Benito pulls a new mask out of his pocket to hide his embarrassment for not having seen Carla for what she truly is. “How nice,” he says to her. Then he shuts off his most recent emotions and turns his attention to San Francisco, the city that spurred his dreams of becoming a doctor, making money, and finding a beautiful woman to love—the city where all his dreams came true.
In that moment of confusion, when one mask seems not big enough to hide all his disappointments, he attacks the last remaining vestige of his love and says: “You know, the whole city seems so corrupt these days. It’s all real estate, and deals.” With anger, frustration, and humiliation pouring out of him too fast for him to contain, the real Dr. Benito Zamora seems to gush out from behind all of his masks and commit himself to a dramatic change in his life. He tells Carla that he is moving back to Mexico to take care of his mother and “his poor.” Although San Francisco fostered his dreams, he finds that his dreams have led him to a place of which he never dreamed. He is old, and he is alone. Those beggar’s hands that he saw at the beginning of the story are well described. For having removed his masks, Benito realizes that his wealth has not kept him from wanting.
The author, Adams, then sums up the story with Benito walking past the big, pretentious beach house with all its masked party-goers and toward his car where he will make the ”risky drive” to the city. In the end, readers are left with the image that it is a risky drive through life when one takes off all the masks, but what a way to go.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Alice Adams, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “The Last Lovely City,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.