Queen of Hearts by Dan McCall (Holt Rinehart & Winston: $15.95)
To understand all is to forgive all, the French say. They do not say that the reverse is true. To forgive all is to understand very little.
Dan McCall, author of the well-received "Bluebird Canyon," sets his novel amid middle-aged love, anxiety and creature comforts. It chugs along there in a mist of mutual forgiveness. Its protagonists, a widowed museum curator and a twice-divorced prospective heiress, make love, quarrel and cope with their families, but their principal moral activity is telling each other that it's all right.
"It" is life, along with various forms of guilt, mainly filial. Joe Longstreet's mother dies in the Bay Area while he is in bed in Redlands with Miranda McDunna. One of his early reactions is to address his father, who died when he was little. "Daddy," he thinks. "Daddy? I didn't take care of Mom."
Now by any reasonable standards, Mrs. Longstreet, a retired drama teacher, was perfectly well taken care of. When she died from the aftereffects of an operation, her daughter, Judy, was staying with her, and her son had been in steady touch. Consequently, Joe's mental breast-beating makes us feel a little queasy about him.
Model of Stoicism
Still, he is a model of stoicism in contrast to Judy. Upon discovering her mother dead, she takes an overdose of tranquilizers. Later, at the funeral, she tries to climb into the coffin, and still later she slashes her wrists.
As for Miranda, she takes care of her dying father in his hilltop mansion and gets her mother out of a succession of aggressively self-destructive scrapes. She is calmer than Joe, though often depressed. This is understandable, since she went through some rough years. She and her brother used to make love regularly until one day she refused him; he raped her and then went off to get killed in Vietnam. She had him buried in her garden. Joe would like her to move.
All this is not as funny as it sounds. For one thing, it's not meant to be. "Queen of Hearts" is neither theater nor fiction of the absurd. It is warm and concerned, and even its humor is solemn, like a clergyman's. Its characters are positioned on the leading edge of the contemporary; in this case, West Coast midlife contemporary. The leading edge, as Joe and Miranda wield it, is not cutting at all. It is nubby.
Joe lives with his teen-age son, Joshie. They make waffles together in the morning and, when they aren't having serious talks, they kid around a lot. Joshie has a goofy smile, plays breathtaking football and is going off to St. Moritz to ski. He will get a lot out of the experience.
After Joe drives Joshie to school in his 29-year-old MG, he visits Miranda. She lives with her daughter, Melissa, who is 6 but talks like a contemporary of Joshie or, for that matter, of the Queen of Sheba. When Joshie plays tag with Melissa to console her for one of the hurts that they and their parents are continually receiving, Joe advises him to let her catch him. Comfort in "Queen of Hearts" is a series of prepared dishes that people take around to each other.
A Shade More Fragile
Miranda is as nubby as Joe, though a shade more fragile. She drives a hot-pink Cherokee Chief, which she calls Roki. She calls Joe "Bean." She has two disreputable poodles and when she goes to watch Joshie play football, she wears a mink coat over her jeans and cusses out the referee.
On the day the book begins, Miranda receives Joe after breakfast wearing the mink coat with nothing underneath. It is his 40th birthday and they are going to take nude Polaroids of each other. They do, from time to time, but there are interruptions. An old professor friend drops by. He is Jewish, compassionate and wise--also, like the others, vulnerable. Like the others, he drives cute; his car is a beat-up Peugeot. By their cars you will know them. If "Queen of Hearts" had a real villain, he, or she, would drive a late-model Impala and it would be a livelier book.
As the day goes by, Miranda has to go out to take gasoline to her mother, stuck on the highway. Later she has to go out to rescue her former husband, whose car has broken down while he was out with Melissa. Later still, as they are about to sit down to steak and garlic bread, she gets another call. Her mother may be having an epileptic fit, but as it turns out, she's not.
Gnome-like, the children drift in and out, Polaroids and lovemaking add to the general business and finally Joe gets the call about his mother. The book continues with his anguished confrontations with his sister and his past, and a quarrel and reconciliation with Miranda.
McCall's language is generally as damp as his characters. The professor friend, consoling Joe over his mother's death, tries to express how much she meant to him: "I won't ever not remember her with love and interest and amusement and pride that she took the time to get to know me. And lavish on me her wonderful spare interest." And when Joe makes up with Miranda, he tells her: "Lady, you make happiness the only thing I feel."
It ends with Joe about to go off to London on a Guggenheim grant with Miranda, to write about the painter John Singer Sargent. That is about all we see of his working life. On the evidence of "Queen of Hearts," Guggenheims are awarded for feeling bad and forgiving yourself.