The Funeral Makers by Cathie Pelletier (Macmillan: $16.95)
Mattagash, Me., is in the boondocks, a place where small-minded people spend half their time and three-quarters of their energy concealing minor lies. It is also a place where all 456 residents seem to know each other's business and where the town's spirit can shift as sharply and suddenly as a tree in the wind. Cathie Pelletier's clever first novel takes us to the inner sanctum of this imaginary hamlet and its first family in a way otherwise possible only to blood relatives or those with access to an old-fashioned party-line phone.
Set conveniently in the '50s (when small minds were thought to be smaller and remote regions even more isolated), "The Funeral Makers" revolves around the gathering of the McKinnons to make preparations for the last rites of their ailing matriarch. On her deathbed, Marge McKinnon is determined to follow in her missionary father's footsteps to the grave--without protest or hospitalization. Rare diseases seem to run in the blood; where the Rev. Ralph C. McKinnon succumbed to "dum dum's fever" while preaching the Lord's word in China, Marge is plagued by beriberi.
Many Private Demons
The "healthier" members of the family are afflicted by their own private demons. Youngest sister Sicily lives in Mattagash with her unfaithful, beer-bellied, relentlessly pessimistic husband, Ed, and her sexually rebellious 14-year-old daughter, Amy Joy. Middle sister Pearl, who managed to escape to the big time--Portland, Me.--still struggles with disappointment in marriage; her "good catch" ended up being a mortician. The drama of the hour pits characters against each other, forcing long-overdue confrontations and, in many cases, bringing the relief of resolution.
The book's most memorable character is Chester Lee Gifford, Mattagash's 32-year-old black sheep and a frequent practitioner of a rainbow of unseemly activities, ranging from larceny (petty and grand) to moral and sexual turpitude. Chester Lee is dating the overweight, lovesick Amy Joy, threatening to topple the social foundation of the town. While he can produce on demand the expedient line to sway a wavering woman into his bed, he has his limits. Statutory rape is one thing, but forceable rape--never.
Once, when through accidental circumstances he found himself in bed with a strange woman, he decided to make his move. When she yelled rape, he left, insulted.
The Ultimate Catch
Chester Lee channels his unspent energy into pirating a nearby late-model Packard--to his way of thinking, the ultimate acquisition.
"The smooth Packard beneath his hands was a sensation no Gifford had ever known before. . . . Chester Lee could no more ditch it than he could abandon the girl in the lingerie section of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue if she suddenly materialized all warm and naked before him."
Pelletier's ensemble piece falls short when she lapses into occasional sermonizing, causing the reader to suspect that the author has an ax to grind with her hometown of Allagash, Me. The notion that Chester Lee's influence over his largely predetermined fate is virtually inconsequential, for example, seems one-dimensional, even patronizing. By eighth grade, Pelletier writes, Chester Lee came to realize that "futures were inherited, that chances were passed down from father to child. . . . That's when Chester Lee decided that the world owed him something and that he should set about collecting it."
This particular bone to pick is small, however, compared with the rest of a rather luscious roast. Pelletier has created a droll yet detailed, mean but magical kingdom out of an inbred, isolated cast of characters grimly united by geography. Pelletier writes with a skeptic's critical faculties and the wondrous sense that life is macabre and whimsical at the same time. Reality this is not: Even after the bodies drop and the illusions stand exposed in Mattagash, readers are still in for a good laugh.