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Damages by Helena Harlow Worthen (Arbor House: $15.95; 274 pp.)

August 10, 1986|Georgia Jones | Jones is Times Assistant Book Editor. and

Mary King is on, what they used to call, a bad trip. That is, she deliberately sets out to kill her father. It's the early '70s, and he's holed up near the summit of one of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, north of Santa Fe, in a hermitage above the remnants of a commune that he founded.

If you harbor a lingering sense of nostalgia for the counter culture, get teary-eyed when you hear the Byrds, or flash back to the Coop in Berkeley every time you pick up an imported kiwi at the Irvine Ranch Market, your sentiments may be dashed by Helena Harlow Worthen's slender novel about the '60s and what happened to some of the people who spearheaded the commune movement.

Joe Hank's consciousness expands as he and his wife Maureen expand their family. Mary is the oldest of Joe Hank King's female offspring. Females are what Joe has fathered (much to his macho disappointment) and each has been granted a more "new age" name than the last: Shalom, Terra, Lumina, Karma; then, finally, a son arrives, whom he names Isaac.

Joe Hank is a Timothy Leary-like character, a brilliant, brooding, rough-edged, handsome boy who sailed through Harvard, found the tweedy gentility of the place too cramped for his intellectual and physical style, and headed out to San Francisco in the late '60s. There he evolves into a sort of psychologist-turned-psycho-sociologist as he explores everything from LSD to primitive cultures to Zen to ecology to the concept of the "new man."

The King household near the Haight-Ashbury district is an inner-city quasi-commune with strangers coming and going or sitting down to meals of sprouts and herb tea with Joe Hank, his ever-pregnant wife and their daughters.

Mary's negative feelings toward her father started almost at birth, when he tossed her up in the air, exposed her to snarling dogs, insisted she never be afraid. As the years pass, she emerges as a prim little wifely thing. She cooks, she does laundry, she assists her mother in her home birthing. She shields her younger siblings when her parents have one of their many, passionate quarrels.

Eventually Joe Hank, Maureen and a small group of followers migrate to New Mexico to establish a new order, a commune they call Padma. (They dump the girls on Maureen's sister in San Francisco.)

Mary visits one summer between quarters at Berkeley to witness just what this Padma place is: a raw, rural community of trust-fund hippies, pathetic runaways, health nuts and ailing infants. She admits that the organic diet and excessive physical work involved in gardening and building actually makes her feel invigorated. But she is outraged by the status of her father as a worshiped figure of authority who controls everyone's activities, orders people to prayer, and sires kids with whom he will. Will Mary try to kill Joe Hank? That question seems to be answered not even halfway into the novel. The bigger question remains--does anyone have the brains--or heart--to stop her?

You can pity Mary, you can understand why she hates her father, but she's such a drab, humorless, asexual woman that there's nothing much to like about her. You can envision her ugly green suede clogs and wire frame glasses more clearly than you can imagine her face.

Finally, you ask, what is this book about? The '60s? Child abuse? The souring of a vision? We learn details about characters that add up to nothing. Victor, the shrimpy, red-haired nerd who wants to sleep with Mary, doesn't quite measure up to Berkeley chic because he is attached to his electric toaster and Water Pic and eats stuff like liver and onions. (Because it's told straight it's unintentionally funny.) There's Ivan, a tall, anorexic actor with no possessions, who physically interests Mary--but no sparks fly between them, and he turns out to be so lacking in emotional equipment that he doesn't care to stop her from destroying herself.

Worthen describes Joe Hank's radicalization well, and she evokes the sense of what life among the hippies in the late '60s in San Francisco must have felt like to a child--the fears, frustrations, absurdities. Joe Hank's mental disintegration is less successfully conveyed. The biblical overtones of his journey into the desert with his son Isaac is more than a trifle heavy-handed, and in the end Worthen cheats us of some of the drama of what happens--and why--on this tragic trip.

She stumbles over the insignificant; for example, she goes on and on about whether Mary should or shouldn't leave the keys in her car when she goes to find her father. Worthen meanders from the story she intends to tell. While Mary has gone off to the mountain with a gun, where are we? In a Santa Fe bar with some actors identified only as Ophelia and Hamlet, talking about "Timon of Athens."

"Damages" rates as a mildly entertaining novel that raises good questions about how parents can fail their children while thinking they are saving the world.

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