Book Review : Coming of Age Brings Both Disillusion and Deliverance

June 28, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The South African Quirt by Walter D. Edmonds (Little, Brown: $14.95)

Walter D. Edmonds, now 82, began writing about life in Colonial and early post-Colonial Upstate New York with "Rome Haul" in 1929, soon after he was graduated from Harvard. The book, and such later novels as "The Big Barn," "Erie Water," "Chad Hanna" and his best-known work, "Drums Along the Mohawk," which became a classic John Ford film, constitute the richest body of fiction since James Fenimore Cooper about a peculiarly neglected time and region.

Edmonds knows it well, the rugged and still thinly populated country north of the Erie Canal (which survives in part as the Barge Canal). He was born in Boonville, 30 miles north of Utica in the western foothills of the Adirondacks.

In his new, beautifully carved cameo of a novel, "The South African Quirt," Edmonds returns to Boonville and his own childhood (evidently) to recall from the saving if unforgiving perspective of age a father-son relationship that ought to have been emotionally crippling for the boy--for any boy.

The family lives in New York, where the father is a hard-driving and successful lawyer. Now in summer, the father and the boy, who is perhaps 12 years old, are vacationing at the family homestead near the Black River. The mother is ailing in New York as always (it is not hard to guess why); two other children are off on their own pursuits.

Unquestioning Obedience

The boy, Natty Dunston, is solitary, likable, sensitive and smart. There's a new mongrel puppy at the farm, and there seems every chance for an idyllic vacation to write an essay about, except that the demanding martinet of a father wants to mold the boy into a combination of hunter, soldier and tough-minded elitist (all in the father's own image, obviously), and he insists on unquestioning obedience at a time when boys are full of questions, although not necessarily disobedient.

The quirt of the title is used to administer a sadistic beating that is only the physical aspect of a summer's worth of humiliations for the boy.

The portrait is of father as monster and, to the extent that it is autobiographical (as it seems to be and as the jacket copy indicates the story is), time has not lent a softening new guise to the elder Dunstan. Seventy years later, his harsh insensitivity still freezes the soul like an upstate winter wind.

But the novel is, for all its remembered horrors, a warming tale of survival and implicit triumph. The boy's wisdom is hard-won, but it is won. Father and son have lost each other, but only one of them, brought to maturity the hard way, knows it.

Affecting Fidelity

"The South African Quirt" fits the familiar mold of the coming-of-age novel customarily written at the beginning rather than in the twilight of a career. But Edmonds particularizes the experience, and the past, with fine and affecting fidelity.

The Adirondack country, the damp and mossy darkness of the wood, the roaring rivers, the night sounds, are recaptured by a very able writer indeed, and so are the Upstate folks--neighboring farmers, the housekeeper, the rural delivery mailman--whose several generations of ancestors Edmonds has been celebrating for more than half a century.

It is a novel with strong claims on the attention of young readers, but adults who have not let the traumas of their own adolescence be glazed over with dubious nostalgia will, I suspect, find pleasure and reward in Edmonds' brief, dramatic chronicle of disillusion and deliverance.

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