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CAMPING OUT by Eleanor Clark (Putnam's: $16.95; 224 pp.)

May 11, 1986|Judith Freeman | Freeman, a novelist and critic, is at work on a collection of short fiction, "Good Works and Other Stories . "

Eleanor Clark has been publishing stories of one kind or another since the 1940s. "The Oysters of Locmariaquer," a nonfiction account of oyster harvesting in a small seaside village, won a National Book Award. Her collected stories appeared in 1974. Three novels and four works of nonfiction comprise an opus to which she has just added, "Camping Out," a novel that starts off with an innocent, rather bucolic scenario and turns increasingly toward the bizarre and menacing.

Dennie Hensley, a 35-year-old American woman, is living in Rome with her husband, Carter, a member of the diplomatic corps. When Dennie's mother dies, she must return to the States for the funeral, but instead of grief, she feels a sense of removal, a numbness to her loss, that prompts her to say things to her husband like, "I'm afraid I'll miss that NATO banquet."

After the funeral, Dennie visits Marilyn Groves, an old but not necessarily close friend, who lives in Vermont and writes poetry. Marilyn proposes an overnight camping trip to a pond not far away, and the two women--Dennie the diplomat's wife, Marilyn the poet--set out with a canoe strapped to the car.

Through none-too-subtle foreshadowing, Clark lets it be known that the night near the pond will be anything but peaceful. Marilyn, a lesbian, presents an attraction of considerable force for the married Dennie, and as the sexual tension increases, an interloper suddenly appears, a fugitive in a stolen boat who puts a hole in their canoe and proceeds, over the space of the night, to terrorize the two women. By dawn, as they stumble out of the woods, bruised and carrying their dead dog in a knapsack, they have passed through an experience Dennie describes as using her last seconds "to see what she . . . came from and the sense of senselessness" of her life.

The events at the pond are meant to horrify, but they don't, perhaps because Clark does not successfully break the rule that says you don't tell when something bad is going to happen before it does if you want to hold suspense.

There are also certain problems with Fred, the intruder, who hears voices, is psychotic, and perhaps a convict as well. He is one of those crazily eloquent criminals who, like a Gary Gilmore or Jack Abbott, are supposed to engross you by the coarse truthfulness of what they say, or their brilliant oddity, or through some quirky faculty that sometimes flashes like the dark side of genius.

As such a villain, Fred doesn't quite make it. The sense of menace is subdued by a confusing attraction each of the women seem to feel for him, at least initially. This could have worked, but Fred never seems compelling enough to warrant the attention of two rather intelligent women. He is a coarse, foul-mouthed man who seems to have read some poetry and can play a tin flute, and so the central ambivalence the women feel toward their persecutor, which reaches a certain improbable height when one feels jealousy while the other is being raped, is never fully convincing.

The structure of the novel has the events of Dennie's life flashing before her during her night of terror. Another part of the story is revealed in a letter, written by Dennie to Marilyn long after their night in the woods, but never mailed. Thus the story moves backwards and forwards in time, covering a childhood in a bombed-out fortress in Italy, a complex relationship with a twin brother and difficulties with parents, finally culminating in a revelation of incest worthy of Greek tragedy.

These parts of the novel--the childhood in Europe, the family remembrances--are the most compelling passages. Eleanor Clark, who is married to Robert Penn Warren, with whom she has two children, has obviously done much traveling in her life, and she writes beautifully about landscape and peculiarities of experience on both sides of the Atlantic. In Dennie, she has created a very interesting character. But Marilyn is a sketchy figure: What you remember about her, once the book is laid down, is her academic posturings and the fact that she applied lipstick hourly. Worse than being sketchy, she is downright perplexing when it comes to Fred, for whom she seems to have the most incongruous feelings.

It's a terrible thing to call a novel "uneven," since it seems obvious that every work of fiction has parts that are better than others. Suffice it to say, then, that "Camping Out" is most compelling when the story moves to things of the past, and least convincing when it returns to the shores of the pond, where, regrettably, even the description of the storm has a not-quite-true ring to it.

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