Providence, R. I., functions as the geographical setting; providence, lower case, the plot; the city and the supernatural force continually interacting to force the characters into unlikely juxtaposition. Adam Dwyer is an attorney; well educated, gentlemanly; a bit wooden in manner. He's married to the ladylike Clara, has a teen-aged son named Ike and a somewhat rakish younger brother, Asa, a physician.
When the novel begins, Asa Dwyer has just given his nephew a microscope as a 14th-birthday present, and in the process of the demonstration, Adam volunteers a drop of blood. After a cursory glance at that casually prepared slide, Asa insists that his older brother have a medical work-up, which results in the diagnosis of leukemia.
The melodramatic opening establishes the dark tone and hectic pace maintained throughout the novel. Desperate to provide for his family in the short time left to him, Adam expands his routine legal practice to take on all comers, a surprisingly large assortment of malefactors for a modestly sized New England city.
Two centuries away from the glory days of clipper ships, Providence has become a haven for small- and medium-time mobsters. A pair of these, an up-and-coming young punk named Skippy Carbone and his psychotic sidekick, Baby, burgle the Dwyer house. Disappointed by the limited amount of fenceable technology, they steal the rugs, the family heirlooms, the photographs and the model ships, taking the car, a 1980 Citation, for pure spite. "The pits," Skippy says, "surprised the guy upstairs hadn't left the motor running. People wore out their knees praying their Citations would be stolen."
One World to Another
Wolff shifts smoothly from the Dwyers' cultured prose style to the hoodlums' post-literary speech as easily as a performance car moves into top gear. With barely any sensation of transition, you're out of the Dwyers' tasteful house and orderly lives and into the amoral, stoned world of Skippy, Baby and Skippy's girlfriend Lisa, an airhead who lives from one high to another.
The robbery is a modern Bridge of San Luis Rey connecting these characters to one another and to Lt. Thomas Corcoran of the Providence police force, who has the misfortune to become so sexually besotted with Lisa that he agrees to steal drugs from the department's evidence room to keep her interest.
Wolff is adept at describing Corcoran's sad, decent middle-class existence as he is comfortable with the Dwyers' splendid fortitude or the criminals' mindless cruelty. When the Dwyers go to the police station to report the robbery, Corcoran is dressed as a clown, an avocation he has pursued ever since his seriously burned daughter was cheered during her convalescence by volunteer clowns from the Shriner's Club.
Providence in both senses exerts absolute control over these characters. The city is small enough; its prosperous neighborhoods so thoroughly burglarized that Skippy invades the Dwyer house again, this time finding Clara alone and raping her. Already unstrung by her husband's fatal illness and the strain of coping with her emotions, Clara becomes a virago living for vengeance alone. In an ironic device few writers would risk, Wolff has Adam Dwyer assigned to defend Skippy Carbone for the murder of a local racketeer, realizing in the course of these encounters that his client is his wife's rapist.
As it turns out, Dwyer's efforts are superfluous; the mob takes care of Skippy and saves Dwyer from conflict of interest. Probability is both the point--and beside the point--in this story. Wolff is concerned with a more generalized sort of chance; the caprices of fate on a grand scale, the hazards of life in the closing decades of the 20th Century.
A mere 30 years ago, the lives of the Dwyers might never have intersected with the likes of Skippy Carbone; a decent, conscientious policeman like Corcoran would hardly have become the slave of a druggie like Lisa; a murderer and his girl would have had difficulty in registering at the Plaza Hotel, let alone in obtaining credit. In 1960, the bizarre events in this novel might have seemed preposterous, a contrivance to be mentioned in passing before the critic moved on to praise the ingenious structure, the flawless rhythms of speech and the elegantly restrained imagery. Now "Providence" must be treated as an imaginative but thoroughly realistic contemporary novel.