I used to have a stepmother of whom I was very fond. Often, after I was grown, I'd call her up and she'd invariably say: "Oh, hi! I was just talking to Jesus this morning and I asked Him to have you call me." It was OK, no harm to it, but just once, I wish I could have called my stepmother on my own.
Florence King, in her splendid "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady," addresses another question of divine etiquette. Her grandmother (continually griped by Christian Fundamentalists who spoke of the Son of God as if he were on their bowling team), insisted on referring to him by his full name: Our Lord Jesus Christ.
This novel is addressed to a very specific audience: The segment of the Christian population somewhere between Florence King's fundamentalist neighbors and her--perhaps overly formal--grandmother. The novel is about murder and Christianity and "redemption." It addresses evil as well as good and concludes that some people are demon-possessed.
It also has great quantities of sex that I can't even begin to describe or discuss in a family newspaper. (But I can, I must, ask this critical question: How come incest and oral sex in the workplace are perfectly OK, but a woman who goes out of town for S & M experiences is evil?)
Call me prejudiced! Call me puritanical! Call me naive! The sex in this novel made my hair curl. The women who moved through this book labeling themselves "horny" seemed to be unreal, contrived and glaringly out of place in a context where sentences beginning with "Are you Christian?" abound.
And, as I proceed with this review, I'm perfectly aware that a person in a world polarized between "good" and "evil" runs a high risk of being tabbed as "evil" while saying negative things about a writer so heavily credentialed as "good."
Be that as it may, somebody has to tell the truth about this novel. First, then, the plot. As the novel opens, Georgia Bates is being carted by her son and daughter-in-law off to a nursing home in a small town in the Midwest. She's been incontinent at home, but stops that practice when she arrives at Willow Glen.
We are quickly introduced to a long set of characters. Tim O'Hara, handsome and half-paralyzed by a stroke. Hank Martin, a seemingly senile sex fiend. Rachel Stimpson, a double amputee with a very bad temper. Lucy, who's just broken her hip. Mrs. Grochowski, paralyzed from the neck down, but without a respirator or breathing aid of any kind. Stephen Solaris, a young spastic boy in his 20s, who's been rescued from the misdiagnosis of mental retardation by Dr. Staz Kolneitz, the resident mental health person (but all that happened about 20 years ago, when Stephen was only 5). Stephen has a bed in the halls of this place, and communicates with a letter board. (After 20 years, he still hasn't got a computer, even though this is a state-of-the-art nursing home.)
The staff is made up of Edith Simonton, 60 and grumpy; Peggy, a nurse's aide who's apathetic because she "doesn't care," and Heather, who's called "the Angel of Willow Glenn." Heather can see halos around Stephen and Mrs. Grochowski, and this sweet nurse is called "the Angel of Willow Glen" because patients prefer to die in her arms. Heather is the soul of refinement except when she says things like: "Drinking always makes me horny, and I wanted the evening to end on a decent note." And then there's Roberta McAdams, a bad woman.
Heather strikes up a romance with Stephen, using language I can't quote in a family paper. Stephen is soon murdered. A detective lieutenant is called in who "knows" the murderer is Heather because . . . again I can't say why in a family paper. By about Page 240, the reader can narrow the murder suspects down to two--those who don't pray.
This plot doesn't hold water. All the characters talk like one and the same person--the author, I suppose. The women particularly are offensively drawn. The "good" man doesn't seem very good, the evil women don't seem very evil. The person paralyzed from the neck down without a respirator delivers monologues (how?) that run for more than a page. The theoretical murder at the end is far-fetched and stupid.
What I want to know is: Why do people think they can write a novel just because they've read one? Would I pluck out an appendix just because I've seen the operation on public TV? Why didn't an editor bring up some of these problems with Dr. Peck? Perhaps because Dr. Peck had a nonfiction best-seller on the lists for 334 weeks. It's a cruel joke on the author that this thing got published. I have a lot of respect for God (even though I don't go bowling with him), and I'm personally praying that Dr. Peck, for his own sake, goes back to his successful nonfiction.
Next: Joan Hoff-Wilson reviews "The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon" by Stanley I. Kutler (Alfred A. Knopf).