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Book Review : The Chewed-Over Pain of Childhood

May 07, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Monkeys by Susan Minot (E. F. Dutton-Seymour Lawrence: $15.95)

Cold is the most low-energy and featureless of conditions, but given the right weather, it casts highly organized and entirely individual snowflakes.

Susan Minot writes about the common and endlessly chewed-over pain of childhood: the invasion of its presumed eternity by the mortality of parents' decay. I can't explain why, but only report that Minot's engagement of language with feeling precipitates this ordinary grief into the high energy of nine stories as sharp and original as ice crystals.

"Monkeys" is about Augustus Paine Vincent and Rose Marie O'Dare Vincent, and their seven children. The family is a ship, afloat at the start, though in shallow water. Over 13 years, it runs aground, sticks fast and breaks up. Each of the nine stories is another cry from the leadsman's diminishing count.

Rely on Inheritance

The Vincents live on the North Shore above Boston, and spend summers in Maine. They have an up-and-down prosperity, owing more to crumbs from Augustus' inheritance than to his industry. He is a WASP, though perhaps not of the first flight; he played hockey at Harvard. She is middle-class Irish-American and went to Boston College.

Augustus is clenched and aloof. When he takes the children on an outing it is more strenuous than intimate. Rosie is warm-spirited and lavish, a beauty and a former figure skater. Augustus married her for her life, and lives on with her to extinguish it. He is an alcoholic, secret at first, and bit by bit losing control. Rosie fights, flags and eventually dies trying to keep up the belief that every family creates for itself. As she wanes, the children, growing older, try to assume it.

That is the story, more or less, but Minot never once tells it. She makes us tell it; through isolated parental eruptions that can be painful or comical or trivial, but mostly through the movement of the children. They trace the unaware but erratic paths of goldfish in a pond whose oxygen is dwindling. Gradually, their consciousness grows, but not their ability to conduct more than a fighting retreat.

The opening story, "Hiding," is a sunburst that illuminates the pain that will grow. The children are still small; Rosie keeps up the household bustle, like one hand clapping. They all go skating and Rosie, urged by the children, does a figure-three spin in the glow of their regard. All of their regard except Augustus'. "Dad is way off at the car, unlacing his skates on the tailgate but he doesn't turn."

Settles in Front of TV

When they get home, Augustus goes off on an errand. Unlike Rosie, whose errands always involve a mob, he goes alone. Unlike Rosie, whose errands proliferate, he brings back the one thing he goes for. In his absence, Rosie and the children hide in a closet. Augustus will look for them, they will burst out, and the evening will lose its chill.

When Augustus returns, he calls out once; then settles down with the television, his bourbon and the potato chips he went out to buy for himself. The hiders come out, deflated; Rosie folds the linen they have disarranged. The children linger with her till she's through. "We don't want to go downstairs yet, where Dad is, without her."

The next few stories widen the desert. In "Thanksgiving," a family reunion is shattered by a venomous exchange between the usually decorous grandparents. Death, it seems, is hereditary. In "Allowance," the family goes on a Bermuda vacation. War rumors come from the parents' room while the children hang out in their own, at loose ends. Augustus' whiskey bottle is now gallon-size.

In "Wildflowers," we glimpse Rosie's dimly suggested romance with a rich friend. It is her last fling, and "The Navigator"--a brilliantly wrenching story--tells of her last hope.

On vacation in Maine, the older children, now almost grown, confront Augustus with his drinking; and he promises to stop. It is an unexpected victory that they all go on a picnic to celebrate.

They hear a sound. Minot compares it to a shot; but it is a hiss--the hiss of a beer tab being pulled off. Augustus is blandly off his wagon and betraying them once more. Minot gives us one of her final paragraphs which, with no sense of artificial theatrics, come like a trumpet perorating.

"Sometimes on still, black nights they had had throwing contests off the dock. They threw stones into the thorofare and listened to hear them land. Sometimes the darkness would swallow up a stone and they'd wait, but no sound would come. It seemed then as if the stone had gone into some further darkness, entered some other dimension where things went on falling and falling."

A year later, Rosie is dead; her car hit by a train as she was driving home, there is a suggestion of suicide. The next few stories tell of the silence that comes over things. The girls take turns caring for Augustus, shattered but still remote, and of the younger children.

Desolate Christmas

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