Book Review : An Ancestral Tale: True, False or Mystical

Times Book Critic

Scorpio Rising by R. G. Vliet (Random House: $16.95)

In this beautifully written novel, completed a week before he died last year, R. G. Vliet gives us a glimpse of a modern Job. Why are we here? Job demanded of his Creator. Rudy Castleberry, who runs a stationery store in western Massachusetts and wears his hair in what he calls "single-bar style," belongs to a generation that has no words for such a question. His pain, borne stoically and wittily, asks it for him.

Rudy, a displaced Texan, is a near-dwarf with a congenitally deformed back that keeps him in agony at night, and twisted limbs and features. He does his work, parties with his friends and refuses to go under. "I'm going to live if it kills me," he says.

Worse than the pain is the deprivation. Rudy's heart is a perpetual pushover; a teakettle that clatters madly each time a well-rounded figure or an alluring eye comes in range. A classmate at college had seemed to like him; when he tried to do something about it, she made it clear that he disgusted her. Ever since, he has barb-wired himself with a bitten-off stoicism.

He allows himself to be confidant and best friend to Lita, an amiable semi-hippie with wealthy parents, a little daughter and ravishing black hair. He loves her but doesn't say so. She says now and then that she loves him, but it's tenderness; in fact, she keeps falling for actors and musicians, odd or mean. "Christ, life's so physical," he mutters when Lita reaches for his hand and he has to all but nail himself down. "I kept my mind on my business, which is to be goddamned alone."

An Unmarked Grave

Rudy's narrative, occupying the first third of the book, is disciplined, exuberant and utterly individual. Vliet was a poet as well as a novelist, and his narrator speaks arrows. For all Rudy's wit, there is a blackness that hovers and occasionally strikes. Something is brewing; you feel it in his description of the Texas town he came from and where his ancestors are buried. Images of dryness and of a hard-edged light comes through, a sense of scorpions, a reference here and there to an unmarked grave. The tone is muscular and as clear as a bell, yet through the clarity, a ghost stalks us.

For Rudy, wrung in body and heart and as lively as a cricket, there seems no way forward. So Vliet takes him backward. Rudy gets on a train to visit his family for a couple of weeks, but he never arrives. Somewhere between New Orleans and San Antonio, time warps: He finds himself penniless on the streets of Houston, and the year is 1902.

And here, Rudy and his cripply voice seem to vanish. The rest of the book--a fantasy, perhaps, or a pre-figuring--picks up the penumbra of menace around Rudy's childhood memories and weaves it into a story of its own. It is the history, as extravagant as a Jacobean tragedy, of the Castleberry family two generations back.

Its protagonist is Victoria Ann Castleberry, Rudy's grandmother, who died at the age of 21 after spending the last two years shut in her room and shunned by her father. It is told first in the words of Victoria's aunt; and then as the straight narrative.

Victoria, a young belle, was to marry Carson Gilstrap, a flourishing rancher. High-strung, impulsive and restless, she is aquiver with anticipation until a handsomer and more glamorous young man comes along, the son of a state senator. They fall grandiloquently in love, but of course Victoria and her family had given their word. Up to here, there is a decidedly Scarlett O'Hara tone about the whole thing, and Vliet's writing, in contrast with the idiosyncratic liveliness of the first part, takes on a delicately stylized air of melodrama.

Dwarfish Assistant

It then thickens. Victoria turns to her father's dwarfish assistant, whom she has always despised, and tells him she wants to be rid of her fiancee. The dwarf, named Luckett, kills him and returns to demand that she make love to him. She submits out of fear and then becomes addicted. The two are discovered, Luckett is killed, and she goes into seclusion and dies.

In one sense, Rudy is present in all this. It notes that Luckett is his real, although unacknowledged, grandfather--Victoria was pregnant--and has him occupy the unmarked grave. In his violent claiming of the woman he desires, Luckett is also a mirror image of Rudy's tormented restraint. Victoria recalls in part the classmate who rejected him; in part--both have long black hair--she suggests the kind but oblivious Lita.

Vliet gives us several possible ways of taking his story. The most straightforward is that Rudy, on the long train ride, is dreaming or fantasizing an ancestral story that plays out his own unbearable tensions. We could also take it as a true family history that Rudy intuits. Finally, we could think of it as a mystical return, real or imagined, with Rudy going back to become Luckett.

What we miss, I think, is the return of Rudy's own voice. As skillful and beguiling as the story of Victoria is, it has the flat quality of a ballad or a dream. We need the dreamer--if that is what he is--back again. Rudy is the most splendid thing in this quite remarkable book, and the failure of his voice to reappear gives it a limp.

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