The Voices of Women Reckoning : THE EVENING WOLVES by Joan Chase (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 280 pp.)

Margy and Ruthann Clemmons, their little brother, Tommy, and their stepmother, Gloria, live in a cramped house outside Washington. Francis Clemmons, their father and husband, is an unquiet, half-failed musician who has skittered off a performing career to settle for teaching at a local conservatory.

Francis is the family's center, but only as the Wizard of Oz was Oz's. He is a mystifier and a ventriloquist. His incessant stream of jokes and pronouncements comes from everywhere but himself. He is the roaring Magus, whimsical and rough by turns, that the children grow up with, half-believing, and half-not. At the end, he stands forlorn behind a screen that is not knocked over but worn away.

"The Evening Wolves" is a portrait in voices of this nuclear and lopsided family. The nucleus is unstable and radioactive. The voices are clicks on a Geiger counter.

They count the empty distances within the single atom, the love and violence in a domestic gesture, the estrangement and intimacy in a rejoinder, and the long, slow entropy. Joan Chase, author of "In the Reign of the Queen of Persia," is the Enrico Fermi of domestic subatomics; that is, of the woman's part in them.

Francis' continual gab, which can be mordant and graceful, is a voice of oppressiveness. It, and he, are direct descendants of the father in Christina Stead's classic, "The Man Who Loved Children," although Francis is more erratic.

But for all his talk, he is not one of the book's true voices. He is an Earth-rumble. Chase presents him not in what he is, but in what he does or perhaps, because she is not writing caricatures, in what he is fated to do. Men and their voices--and this includes the variously warm, baleful or thuggish voices of Ruthann's and Margy's lovers, as well as Tommy's waiflike chirping--are mysteries. It is the women who reckon them, reckon with them, reckon without them.

And the three real voices in the book are those of the daughters and the stepmother. They are the narrators, in alternating sections, of the slender story; an apparently uneventful passage of eight or nine years from Margy's and Ruthann's life as children with their widower father, through his re-marriage, and up into their late teens. Tommy gets a brief section or two to bear witness in his child's voice; Francis gets none. His voice is the weather reported by Margy, Ruthann and Gloria.

The three voices tell three soldiers' stories. Life with men is war, always wounding and sometimes lethal. But Chase is a true writer; war is also life. Her three lives are three verydifferent rivers that share a river's property of being utterly individual and changing color and timbre with each new stretch of country it goes through.

Margy, the oldest, is in charge until Gloria arrives. She is large, mercurial, awkward and with her father's torrential verbal energy. She takes his tutoring and his taunts; she takes his confusing passion to teach his children, his sudden indifferences, his insistent penny-pinching. Her blouses are always wrinkled, partly because she is a dreamer, and partly because Francis charges for each use of the iron.

She is the one most influenced by the father, and seemingly the most vulnerable. Yet, at the end, she shows the clearest signs of growth and eventual independence.

Ruthann's portrait is more complex. As a child, she seems tough and self-sufficient. While Francis and Margy are fantasizing and squabbling, she stays in the kitchen doing her homework. Where Margy's voice is romantic and fanciful, Ruthann's is cool and down-to-earth.

Yet as they grow, Ruthann plunges whole-heartedly into the life of her adolescence. Margy is sheltered by her fantasies until she has time to grow strong. Ruthann breaks her heart on failed high school beauty contests, on fads, on boys. She goes wild until wildness frightens her so severely that she elopes with a domineering divinity student, and obediently moves to a mission house in the Memphis slums. Born again, she falls mute; she is lost to her life and to us.

Gloria, a sometime Southern belle, part-time model and schoolteacher, makes an insecure and defensive stepmother. She interprets the eccentric life of the Clemmonses as an invitation to install her touchingly kitschy vision of refinement, civility, and lots of heart-to-heart talks.

Any of the three--Margy as ugly duckling, Ruthann as shattered hellion, Gloria as pretentious striver--could be cliches. It is their voices that make them into moving and ultimately mysterious portraits.

Chase's genius is her ability to use narrative as a translucent scrim. Behind what each speaker has to say about herself, we get a deeper view of what she is and might be.

Beneath Margy's generous and sometimes comical effervescence, there is the gradual forging, through pain and openness of a woman who will discover who she is. Neither she nor we quite know yet; and that's one of the book's bits of magic. We see this woman begin to take shape in an extraordinary passage near the end, where she holds off a would-be date-raper through a long night on a beach; and entirely by moral force and imaginative energy.

Gloria's voice is affected and overripe. She is resentful, self-pitying, and foolishly out of touch with those around her. Quite wonderfully, we grow to admire the life in her, the courage, the good will, and the glimpses of a deep-buried sense of beauty.

Ruthann, the most mysterious of them all, talks in hard-edged, clipped tones that bit by bit turn into knives. We feel her struggling, we feel her unresolved memories of the dead mother with whom she has never come to terms. We feel--her language becomes incandescent, almost surreal--the climactic terrors that will force her into surrender and silence.

The voices in "The Evening Wolves," intricate, strident, unresting, demand a lot of the reader. Pressing on, we come to the silences behind each; the silences of three ordinary and uncontainable lives; the silences between heartbeats.

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