BOOK REVIEW : Sorrow Can Weave a Magical Spell

Hell-Bent Men and Their Cities by Susan Dodd (Viking: $17.95).

There's apt to be a moment in time, when you're reading, when the material by density of sorrow overwhelms elegance of style. It's the moment, if you happen to be teaching a literature class, when the students in the room begin to writhe like pythons, and collectively sigh and groan, "Why did you make us read this?" This in no way reflects on the quality of work that's being studied at the time, but is, rather, an index of the readers' pain threshold. The material is so sad that all the elegance and literary style in the world cannot contain it. To read work such as this is to undergo an operation by a great surgeon who's using the best instruments--but somebody forgot the anesthetic.

Cancer, lying, anorexia, career failure, old age and death are the topics in this collection of short stories, and the most painful by far is old age--perfectly observed by the author, almost unbearable to read about. In "Sinatra," a woman from the East Coast goes to New Mexico to move her 88-year-old father out of his sterile, lonely condo into the inevitable nursing home. It's not the nursing home that's so terrible--the father, in fact, realizes he must go there--but rather, it's that his brain is functional enough to know the full extent of the loneliness of his position, the ridiculousness of what he has come to. The subtext here is: His daughter is divorced, hasn't seen her father for a year and is as lonely as he is.

In "Third World," a father, full of anguish, watches his daughter slip away from him, a victim of anorexia. His divorced wife has colluded with the child in her attempt at slow suicide: "Denise had catered for months to Melissa's sudden craving for crisp green leaves and sprouted seeds. She had even, she later confessed to me, boasted, telling her friends of this teen-age daughter who wouldn't dream of sugar and spice, butter and cream. They ate romaine together, my wife and child. The woman grew as slim as a girl, the girl as slight as a boy. Their eyes were set in hollows, their rage carried like concealed weapons." And the child is dying, while her self-centered mother grows more beautiful, more stupidly evil.

The theme in these tales can be summed up by an old Johnny Ray tune from the '50s: "What's the Use?" What's the use, in "Higher Mathematics," when a heroine's mother, a woman who absolutely refuses to give in to the ravages of old age and lives in a bedroom like Barbara Cartland's, marries a nice man who dies before the first night of their marriage has even fairly begun? What's the use in "Subversive Coffee," in which a fanatical Israeli physician in running shoes decides to use the narrator's dying old dad as a kind of metaphorical football field to run up and down on? The doctor's a hero, the daughter can't help but fall in love with him, but the dad is dying, come hell or high water.

In "Nightlife," yet another lonely, middle-aged daughter must put yet another infirm father in yet another nursing home. Again, the themes are loneliness, futility. The father, and an acquaintance of the father, are exquisitely, horribly conscious of their own infirmity, their own mortality. And yet, there is, in one man, one last dance. The story is profoundly true, profoundly sad.

"Night Life" is the 11th tale in a collection of 15 stories. After "Night Life," there's that one about the hours-long marriage, then the cancer one, then an end on an "affirmative uplift" about a Talmudic scholar who gets to visit his teacher once a year. (I'm leaving out the stories that came earlier about unfaithful husbands, lying husbands, sordid affairs.)

These are all beautifully, beautifully written! But they leave the reader with a craving for a triple martini and/or a Star Trek rerun. Anything, anything to take the mind off the decay and anguish that seems to be the lot of (intellectual) mankind in this century.

Sometimes, rebelliously, I wonder whatever happened to joy? Is it only the dummies who get to have a good time anymore, get together and make love or square dance? Is it only the smart ones who have to ignore their dying parents or watch their children die of anorexia? If so, these stories are a powerful endorsement for the unexamined life.

Tuesday: Lee Dembart reviews "Cosmogenesis: The Growth of Order in the Universe" by David Layzer.

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