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Book Review : A First Novelist's Faith in His FM Band

December 08, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Great Equalizer by Rick Borsten (The Permanent Press: $18.95)

Young Benny Horowitz is almost sure to be the death of his mother. Why, Eudora Horowitz is given to muse rhetorically, why is her son so entirely peculiar? Why did Benny drop out of college just a few weeks before graduation? Why does he mope up in his room like some kind of sick pelican, poring over doomsday books, brooding over the breakdown of the Earth's ecological system, fretting over the upcoming nuclear holocaust and all the other stuff he's totally unable to do anything about? Is the kid--perish the thought--going to end up like his father, Mort; socially inept, a stay-at-home, unable and unwilling to make a living, one of life's dropouts, the next best thing to a socially retarded person?

Benny takes a reciprocally dim view of his mother. She sells cosmetics and weird pyramid schemes, drives a Cadillac, has a fat portfolio of investments (and is, of course, entirely unsympathetic)--the kind of middle-aged woman who used to live in Steinbeck novels, utterly dedicated to taking the fun out of life and making sure the shelf paper is straight in her cupboards.

Cheating the Equalizer

But when Benny looks at his dad, he can't find much to approve of there either. Mort's entire life--his organic farming out in the backyard, his vegetarianism, his compulsively slow driving, his caution about the entire universe--seems directed simply to the goal of living as long as possible, of cheating the Grim Reaper, referred to in this novel as the Great Equalizer.

But what's the point, Benny speculates, in living a long time if your life has no meaning? It's because he himself can't find a meaning that he's quit school. He needs time to figure things out before he jumps on the adult treadmill for the next 40 years, before he wakes up as an old guy with his life behind him and nothing to show for it. . . .

Still, Benny is not so unrealistic as to think he can skulk in his bedroom, alone with his lofty thoughts, and not pay rent to his capitalistic mom now that he's dropped out of school. So since he's the kind of kid he is, he finds the one job guaranteed to drive his mother even further out of her skull. He takes the weekend shift at a halfway house for the adult retarded, so that he'll have five days a week free to ponder the great questions of life.

A Little Help From Friends

Naturally, those great questions start getting answered on the weekends as soon as Benny begins to make friends with the likes of Elisha Malune and Moby Cochrane and Amar (sometimes known as Hot Dog), and Lythia Maywire and Billy and Emmy and an extremely pretty woman named Nadia.

Now, obviously, Rick Borsten has set himself some taxing artistic problems. Is he really going to go into the minds of all these "retarded" characters, show how their minds work, and differentiate them, each from the other? There's something wonderful about being a first novelist. Borsten doesn't hesitate; he simply goes for it. And so Nadia, even before the reader has met her from the outside, reveals to us a glimpse of her mind: "How I'm tired now, but like a good tired, 'cause of the tree, 'cause of the Banyan, how I was with the Banyan again, climbing the Banyan how I'm not supposed to climb it, and leaving at night after the dark stuff comes, and the fuzzies with the dark stuff, to climb it how I'm not supposed to . . . whooshing with the Banyan, how it whooshes with its arms. . . . "

And another character, Lucius, doesn't even give English more than a perfunctory nod: " Oooooh-wooooooooo . . . feel good. Yuh."

Behavior on the AM Band

Rick Borsten here postulates a theory of human perception that operates a little like an AM-FM radio. Young Benny's mother, with her buying and her selling and her clean house and her good looks, operates in the boring AM wavelengths of life. So does the lady who runs the halfway house during the week, whose life would appear to depend on budgets, menu-planning and dentists, all the tedious dregs of life that she labels "appropriate behavior."

But Benny sees, after only a weekend or two, that (forgive me if it sounds corny, and believe me that Borsten does a very good job in convincing the reader) the so-called retarded people are far closer to the heart of infinity than those beastly women with their beastly appropriate behavior. These retarded folk understand about affection and love and getting drunk and having fun, and Nadia in particular is a superlative human being.

Frequency-Modulated Universe

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