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Book Review : A Dark Look at Life on the Home Front

Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams (Vintage Contemporaries /Random House: $6.95; 251 pages) With her two earlier novels--"State of Grace” (1973) and “The Changling” (1978)--Joy Williams has come to be known as a writer talented in creating surreal, dreamlike worlds corresponding to the mental states of child-preoccupied women. The first one was a pregnant woman named Kate in shock from the accidental death of her husband; the second, Pearl, was subject to alcoholic and paedophobic hallucinations.

And now with the publication of “Breaking and Entering,” a third has been added to the Williams collection of mothers-gone-mad. This is Liberty, a young woman first introduced in a short story called “Breakfast,” part of a volume of stories, “Taking Care,” published in 1982. She is a pretty, though gloomy, young woman unable to speak for herself, married to Willie who talks for her, making up stories about his wife for the amusement of whoever will listen.

Many Secret Lives

But with the expansion of story to novel, the plot has thickened, so that Liberty’s inability to talk, we learn, stems from much more than simple reticence. She is a woman of secret lives created by Willie’s honed skills of breaking into other people’s houses and living there for short periods of time, a habit acquired after they are banished from the house of their parents at the early age of 15 because of Liberty’s pregnancy and their failed attempt at a joint suicide.

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Liberty’s subsequent stay in a psych ward and her life upon release with Willie leave her somewhat unsure of her status as real person. She tends to believe that they are living beyond their own deaths, as she finds herself walking through locked doors and occupying others’ spaces. And Willie seems to have taken up the occupation of saint, occasionally saving people from death by physical intercession.

Sick green ocean tides come and go, carrying Liberty and Willie off to affluent beach houses, then back to their own dilapidated rent-house in a working-class neighborhood. The children from both sides of town are in states of desertion because of disrupted households and low priorities given to parenthood. Liberty baby-sits the 7-year-old bed-wetting Teddy who is wired to an alarm and a rubber sheet at night and kept busy by his father’s unfaithful girlfriend, Janiella, during the day with an unending schedule of extracurricular activities in order to keep him out of the house.

Dread, Despair and Sorrow stalk through the sumptuously appointed villas as well as the low-income houses like apocalyptic specters, and the public schools have become battlefields in a time of dark revelation as Liberty finds written between the lines of a mimeo sheet about drugs from Teddy’s school: “The principal had misspelled absorption. The school had faulty wiring, daily tornado drills, and nervous German shepherds with names like Kong and Goforit prowling the corridors seeking illegal substances.

Awkward Metaphors

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They had banned “The Little Lame Prince” from the library, had a nurse who spanked children in the infirmary, and had turned off the drinking fountains because there was salt-water infusion in the wells. A teacher had just been attacked in a room where children were dutifully growing radishes in egg cartons and making cameras out of Quaker Oats boxes. There wasn’t time for spelling.”

Williams’ preoccupation with the enigmas of time clogs her own generally smooth running prose in places, creating awkward metaphors that even a wraith like Liberty would be hard put to perform, as when “the moments of the past are stones behind her, over which she stumbles forward.” And, just as Liberty is accused at one point of making an object of her life, so Williams is more interested at times in making symbols of her characters than developing the subtle contrarinesses that make fictional beings come alive.

But by and large, Williams’ quick juxtapositions of telling detail draw the reader into the story’s otherwise murky undertow. And Teddy becomes one of the more engaging children of modern fiction whose devotion to the egg he is assigned to carry with him in his human sexuality class for a week, though a futile effort in terms of actually making it hatch into something, makes him the real hero in an otherwise motherless world.

The rivers of death and self-destruction are difficult to explore. But great poets and prophets have not refused the challenge of the plunge, and our literature is richer for it. Dante brought his note pad with him on his barge ride down the river; Lethe and Jeremiah walked the streets of the City of Death at daylight predicting its fall. And so Williams, in the good company of these literary predecessors, continues with maturity and growing power to voice a dark vision--the reflection of life on the home front gone loveless and sour, reminding us that the hour of Now is upon ourselves and our children, and all is not well.

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Taylor is the author of “Afoot in a Field of Men,” a collection of stories published by Atlantic Monthly Press.


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