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Book Review : Waiting for the Shadows to Take Over

November 26, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Cutting Lisa by Percival Everett (Ticknor & Fields, $14.95)

Percival Everett tells a bleakly survivalist story; only it is a survivalism not of guns and post-nuclear preparations, but of sensibility and morals. Its protagonist is a 66-year-old retired doctor, embittered by age and widowerhood, but above all by what he sees as the failure of honor and loyalty in the world around him. He makes himself the judge of this world and, in a manner of speaking, its executioner.

"Cutting Lisa" is well-written and faintly demented. There is a solitariness about it, like a visit to a recluse who has built himself a dwelling full of ingenious do-it-yourself contrivances. He has everything he needs; and because he needs nothing, he has nothing.

Everett has the uncommon skill to work his story up into an ending of genuine though troublesome shock, even while broadcasting it all along. There is the title, there is an epigraph from Nietzsche, and there is the spare and intriguing opening section.

A Prickly Vacation

These three things tell us, even as we deflect belief, what will happen when Dr. John Livesey, on a long and prickly vacation visit to his son's home, discovers that his daughter-in-law Lisa is pregnant by her husband's best friend.

We meet, in the brief opening, a man who has come to superficial terms with old age; living a tidy and methodical life in a small Virginia town, and trying not to notice when the autumn colors display at its best the garden that his wife had cared for.

One morning he is summoned on an emergency to the hospital where he still works part-time. A man has brought in his wife and just-born baby, having performed a crude but successful Caesarean operation on her. The father, an uneducated countryman, makes it clear that his exploit was gratuitous; something he did, not because there was any emergency, but because he was bent on bringing his own child into the world.

It is a Nietzschean performance indeed, an amoral act of pure will. Livesey is appalled, at first; then angry; and finally, infected.

A Wimp and a Puzzle

The infection begins to run its course some months later, when Livesey visits Glen, his son, in the home on the Oregon coast where he lives with Lisa and their small daughter Katy. The old man dotes on the child; on the other hand, he finds his son wimpy and his daughter-in-law a puzzle. Their comfortable life strikes him as trendy and phony; he dislikes their friends, their artiness and their parties. He also hates their food--vegetarian--and smuggles in bacon and ice cream.

He is a pest, in other words, and, upon occasion, a mean one. But his pestiferousness is not simply senescent rebelliousness. Something is wrong in the household. Lisa is more nervous than pleased about her pregnancy. She has a lot to say to Glen's best friend, Greg, whenever he comes to visit. Finally, on a picnic, both men fall while rock-climbing, and Lisa's initial alarm is for Greg. It is Glen who has been injured, however, as well as betrayed.

During his son's long stay in the hospital, Livesey pursues his own suspicions until they turn to certainties. At the same time, he makes friends with a couple his own age who live nearby. Lorraine is crippled, and Oliver spends his time taking care of her; but both live with a near-pagan gaiety and valor. And finally, Livesey has a brief affair with Ruth, a woman who is young enough to be not simply his daughter but his granddaughter.

Light Oddly Shown

Light and shadow, in other words. The light is rather oddly shown. Everett writes some pleasing scenes. There is, for example, the commonly painful encounter between Livesey and Ruth's mother, who is younger than he is. But neither Ruth nor the old man's attachment to her seem very real; neither does his more deeply involving friendship for Oliver and Lorraine.

It is as if both the author and his protagonist were marking time for the shadows to take over; and they do. Not only does Livesey become certain about Lisa's betrayal; but he himself is betrayed by Ruth, and he learns that Oliver is dying of cancer.

"Life," he tells himself, "was devised by the enemy."

When the enemy wins, the only thing left is the gratuitous act. As the book ends, Livesey prepares to inflict upon his daughter-in-law, whom he has doped, a lordly providence similar to the one that shocked and aroused him, months before, in the Virginia hospital.

That this can surprise us is, as I say, a tribute to Everett's considerable skill. But it is a surprise without satisfaction. Its logic is shared, to a degree indistinguishable for the reader, between the author and his character. The reader needs to be able to distinguish. And instead of a climax arising out of a set of human inevitabilities, we feel that these inevitabilities are assembled for the purpose of producing the climax.

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