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The Garish Day by Rachel Billington (Morrow: $17.95; 314 pp.)

June 29, 1986|Giles Gunn | Gunn's newest book, "The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture," will be published in the fall by Oxford. and

T. S. Eliot once remarked, in a famous essay on French poet Charles Baudelaire, that "so far as we are human, we must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist."

While this observation is susceptible to misinterpretation, Rachel Billington, in her most recent novel, seems to have forgotten its most obvious meaning. Eliot expressed that meaning perfectly when he brought his observation about our moral natures to a close by remarking that "the worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned."

Henry Hayes-Middleton, Billington's protagonist in "The Garish Day," her eighth novel, may not be a malefactor, but neither is he quite fully a man, despite his appetite for sexual adventure. And he remains arrested in a state of spiritual as well as emotional adolescence at the end of the book precisely because he is incapable of being damned.

In a novel less theologically self-conscious than "The Garish Day" or Billington's more successful as well as more explicit "An Occasion to Sin," this deficiency would be forgivable. But here we are invited to construe young Henry's odyssey from infancy to manhood as ultimately religious, and the novel fails precisely because its author permits her hero to reap the rewards of salvation, or at least of new life, without having ever really experienced the wages of his sin. Even if it takes the death of his saintly but still pathetic mother and the return of the daughter he thought he had forever lost to bring him, so to speak, to his knees, Henry receives in the end only what the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as "cheap grace."

Billington's theological failure in this novel is all the more disappointing because her material is so promising and her strategies for developing it so often effective. Henry is born to a father in the British Foreign Service and a mother who survives her husband's numerous infidelities by clinging to a vague and personalized form of mystical Catholicism. It is Beatrice Hayes-Middleton who sows the seeds of Henry's spiritual development by secretly baptizing him herself in the rites of Rome, though it is Lionel Hayes-Middleton whose philandering and emotional superficiality establishes the model Henry will presumably have to overcome.

Henry's growth in the book could be charted as a movement from Lionel to Beatrice, from the brisk and efficient but rather shallow professionalism of the diplomatic corps to the excessive Romanticism of Roman mysteries and the anguish of a troubled but far from mortified conscience. The choice had been made clear to him on the eve of his departure for Oxford and the commencement of his university career, which occurs just after the summer of his first successful sexual conquest, when his mother had presented him with a picture of the Madonna whose eyes "had a watchful, waiting expression" and his father had given him a globe more than 100 years old "with all the countries of the world in bas-relief." Henry's reflection to himself says it all: "So father's giving me the world and you're giving me the heavens."

But Henry never really is compelled to give up the world for the sake of the heavens and probably shouldn't have to anyway. The world is too interesting in Billington's treatment of it; the heavens, alas, too dull. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable features of this flawed novel is the author's control of social, historical, and even a bit of geo-political detail as she follows Henry's progress from a childhood that begins with the British withdrawal from India, an adolescence that continues through Britain's involvement in the Suez, where Henry's father gets demoted for being in the wrong post at the wrong time, a young manhood that proceeds to Oxford and the early '60s when Britain had not yet caught up with the countercultural movement, and beyond, after an initiation of sorts in the Middle East and the War of 1967, to an adulthood in New York and the heady days of anti-war protests and experiments in communal living.

This socio-historical panorama constitutes the background of that "garish day" of Billington's title, but her treatment of it never quite captures the sense of nostalgia and remorse for what is lost, and must remain well lost, in John Henry Newman's fine old hymn. Instead it constitutes the chief source of interest in a novel that otherwise means to counsel us, in the name of a more "kindly light," against taking the garish day's blandishments and diversions too seriously.

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