RIVEN ROCK. By T.C. Boyle . Viking: 466 pp., $24.95

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Picture, if you will, a man of power, a man who loves women. A man who can't keep his hands off women. A man who loves women so much that he threatens not only his reputation but the safety of the very society whose pinnacle he inhabits.

Now roll your mind back a century, to the fin of another siecle, and change the name below your picture to Stanley: Stanley Robert McCormick to be exact, the youngest son of the inventor of the reaper (and International Harvester) and the hero of T. Coraghessan Boyle's latest epic novel, "Riven Rock."

"Stanley loved his mother, his wife, his sisters," the novel opens, "he loved other people's mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, but he loved them too much, loved them with an incendiary passion that was like hate, that was indistinguishable from hate, and it was that loving and hating that fomented all his troubles and thrust him headlong into a world without women."

Had Stanley not been a Chicago-born, Princeton-educated heir, he would, likely enough, in turn-of-the-century America, have landed in the Boston lunatic asylum, along with some of the weirder illustrations from Krafft-Ebbing's recently published "Psychopathia Sexualis." But because Stanley is a McCormick and fortunate enough to be married to Katherine Dexter, one of the first female graduates of MIT and a socialite to boot with properties in Boston and Switzerland, Stanley gets the best treatment money can buy.

A world without women is the prescription of several eminent doctors. And the specific world decided upon is the McCormick family's Santa Barbara estate that gives the title to the novel. Stanley, according to Dr. Hamilton, is suffering from dementia praecox, a catchall Latinism that was later converted to the catchall schizophrenia, which in Stanley's particular case, displays itself in violent sexual attacks upon women.

Reluctantly, Katherine agrees to the terms Dr. Hamilton sets and agrees to send Stanley, along with a chorus of servants and a quartet of male nurses, out to Riven Rock. Chief among the nurses is young Eddie O'Kane, a striking Irish lad from South Boston, "a hair under six feet, with the pugilist's build he'd inherited from his father . . . and his mother's wistful sea-green eyes with the two hazel clock hands implanted in the right one, inflexibly pointing, for this lifetime at least, to three o'clock." So far, Eddie's "three o'clock luck," as his mother dubbed it, has endowed him with a tremendous optimism. Mr. McCormick's eventual cure will result in a magnanimous gesture to his pal Eddie in the form of a fortune large enough to buy an orange grove in California and a life of pure leisure.

Yet Eddie himself has had a bit of a problem with women and violence. "How his hand came into contact with her face--her sweet plump irritating little burr of a wifely face that found a place beside his each night on the connubial pillow--was as much a mystery to O'Kane as the scalloped shell of the sky and the rain that fell as one angry inveterate thing over all this weary part of the earth." Having left her in Boston with young Eddie Jr., O'Kane throws himself upon the females of the fertile valley with a vengeance.

As if Stanley and Eddie were not enough testosterone for Riven Rock, Dr. Hamilton has populated the stage with a colony of apes, a research project funded, of course, by Katherine and the McCormick money. Hamilton is attempting to trace the sources of human sexual behavior back to primates. Yet the research yields little more than a 24-hour-a-day simian gang-bang heedless of sex, genus or vegetable type. Before Hamilton finally gives up on both Stanley and the apes, he sighs, "If there's one thing I've learned after all these years of study . . . it's that they're nothing but dirty stinking little uncontrollable beasts. Set them free? They don't deserve it."

As the century grows older, doctor follows doctor. Behavioral treatments give way to "the new talking cure" of Freud and his followers. Stanley has several healthy traumas to pin his madness on, including his first vision of female nakedness in the form of the great whiteness of his crazy, naked sister, Mary Virginia, and the repetition of this vision 10 years later in Paris with a putain with the viniferous name of Mireille Sancerre. And then there is the memory of the aged corpse of his domineering father, the inventor of the reaper himself, who takes the form of judges who hound Stanley no less fiercely than the Furies dogged Orestes.

The years march on, yet nothing lasts for very long except the patience and money of Katherine. Eternally banned from the company of her husband, she channels her energy into women's causes, fighting for suffrage out of a mansion in Quincy, Mass., and soothing her aches with toast points and caviar like Winifred Banks in "Mary Poppins."

And Eddie. Eddie lasts and Eddie grows older, with his commentaries on Stanley's treatment and the other madnesses of the day. "He was no biologist, like Katherine," he admits after impregnating yet another irresistible woman, "but he knew that if the male of the species--namely, Eddie O'Kane--sticks his thing in the female enough times, no matter the time of month or the precautions taken, eventually she's going to swell up and keep on swelling till there's another yabbering little brat in the world."

"Riding in on the skirts of Petticoat Rule, the Drys and the Bible-thumpers got the Volstead Act passed," Eddie complains as the teens give way to the '20s, "prohibiting 'the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,' and before women even got their vote (a proposition about which O'Kane was dubious to begin with), he was denied his God-given right to drink himself into a stupor--even in the privacy of his own antiseptic room."

Boyle writes with the muscle of a collegiate fullback ripping the OED in two just for fun. Back in the '70s, bits of his first short stories floated around the dormitories of America along with reefer smoke and Zappa. One early tale has the Great Leader Mao Tse-tung waking up on the morning of his birthday to the thought of a celebratory breakfast of cocktail wieners with Grey Poupon mustard. Another, "The Descent of Man," a primitive ancestor, in some ways, of "Riven Rock," features a chimpanzee named Konrad who scores opera, quotes Yeats and, as the human hero's girlfriend relates, has "finished his tenth book and tells me he'll be doing two more--out of deference to the Miltonic tradition. Isn't that a groove?"

Boyle has always shown an affection for the surrealist scalpel of Dr. Frankenstein, grafting the sublime onto the ridiculous. But 20 years on, Boyle has refined his riffs, matured into more of an Eric Clapton than an Eddie Van Halen: more philosophy, less feedback.

One is reminded of the film of Peter Barnes' "The Ruling Class," with Peter O'Toole's brilliant performance as the mad British earl who is convinced he is Jesus Christ. ("When did you first think you were the Lord?" asks his aunt. "One day when I was praying and realized I was talking to myself.") What "The Ruling Class" did to cement the Darwinian link between madness and the British aristocracy, "Riven Rock" may do for the carriage trade of e pluribus unum.

But while the wealthy Stanley is bound to his mattress with sopping bedsheets, the working Eddie is allowed to exercise his no less red-blooded libido on the married, the unmarried, the young and the old, with no greater consequences than the occasional broken rib and loss of dignity. Yet Boyle is not content with simple social satire. He's after bigger game, and in his heart of darkness, the heart has nothing to do with it.

Boyle's Law says that ontology recapitulates philandering. We are barely distinguishable from the apes, all of us stuck in perpetual rut. That the line between madness and sanity may be wider than we think. The mass of people may be like the windblown trees at one corner of the McCormick estate, bent over the years by the prevailing manners of society. Yet there are plenty of oaks, like the one that Stanley noticed on a pre-madness visit to his California estate, with a perfectly perpendicular trunk whose primal instinct burst it erect through a riven rock of sandstone. Watch out when those trees drop acorns.

So what is the answer, one might ask Boyle, a century after Freud's first analysis? Must some men, as many Washington pundits might suggest, be separated from women for their full term of office? Should a cordon sanitaire of male nurses be looped around the Oval Office? Is there no escape from the madness that sex sows until the final Reaper comes for his harvest?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World