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Book Review : Bereaved Family Grasps at Eroticism as a Way of Grief

May 13, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Under the Dog Star by Joseph Caldwell (Viking: $16.95; 235 pp.)

In a way, Joseph Caldwell's novel is "A Death in the Family" for disjointed and unskinned times.

Here, as in James Agee's book, the sudden death of a father detonates in a family pond. Concentric shock waves spread; the novel charts their turmoil and, eventually, their subsidence.

But in "Under the Dog Star" there are no social or traditional breakwaters for the turbulence to exhaust and transform itself against. The shock effects are pure, almost surreal; what happens at subconscious levels to the survivors is, in effect, what happens.

The story begins when Andy Durant, a quiet country-newspaper editor, is shot dead while holding up a gas station. It was his fifth holdup; to disguise himself, he covered his face with a black stocking that his wife, Grady, had worn to a Christmas concert. She stitched a line of red crosses along the seam to brighten it up. The tender detail, dangerously verging on the whimsical, marks Caldwell's way with his subject.

Mysterious Motives

Not until the end do we learn Durant's motive. He was collecting money to revive an abandoned family farm. But this is almost incidental. "Dog Star" is not about our farm crisis.

It is about free-floating shock. It is about what happens to tragedy in an untragic time, when mourning finds no place, company or rituals to rest in; when it veils itself in disassociation and reveals itself in absurdity.

For Grady, Caldwell writes, "it was as if the gunshot had been a starting pistol, sending her off at an accelerated pace that left her little or no time for reflection." Immediately, it gets her to pack up her household, give up her job as a music teacher and move with her children--Anne, 17, Peter, 15, and Martha, 5--out to the run-down farm.

Quixotic and impractical, the move is Grady's answer to Andy's still inexplicable outbreak: "She could be as stupid and daring as he." But the retort goes wider and deeper. In a sense, Grady, Anne and Peter all go mad for a season; with Martha--in harm's way but unharmed--placidly awaiting their recovery and getting into no worse trouble than occasionally eating their dog's dinner.

"Under the Dog Star" is the chronicle of this mad season. It is told with a lightness and occasional humor that alternate disconcertingly with moments of lush, even melodramatic introspection.

The madness is a loss of external references--that outside order that helps us know our own shape. Grady and her two older children go into a temporary state of manic exaltation; the most conspicuous form it takes is erotic. In brief, the family goes sex-crazy.

Grady's mania, when she is not working on the farm, is divided between two neighbors. One is Guy, an amiable lumberyard operator whom Grady, convinced of his consuming passion, allows to make love to her. The other is Ned, a childhood sweetheart who farms the land next to hers.

The inflammation spreads to Anne and Peter. Their sudden lusts are directed at Royal, the adolescent hired hand who works on their farm. Royal, who has always been neglected, cannot take this sudden glory; he fantasizes himself as a latter-day Nietzschean superman.

It is a species of witches sabbath there on the Durant farm--though in broad daylight and with a comic unreality to it. Unreal it proves to be.

The Sad Truth

In several rueful scenes, Guy tells Grady--who fancies herself Titania to his Bottom--that the reason he loves her is that she's plain and not too bright; and thus he can be sure she'll stay with him. As for Ned--whose wife is dying and whom Grady hopes to marry so they can pool their farming assets--he tells her with patient kindness that he made love only as a favor, because he thought she was in love with him.

Sic transit Venus. Grady bumps down to earth; so do Peter and Anne. The erotic cloud disperses. It had been a surrogate form of mourning the dead husband and father; and now Grady is able to grieve straightforwardly.

Anne and Peter float down as well.

Caldwell's concept is ingenious, and his writing is deft. But the combination of humorous matter-of-factness, irony, sexual obsession and tragedy is a little too much for him to manage. The tone shifts continually, and in the sudden switchbacks, the reader flies off out of sheer centrifugality. Looking back from the end, it all makes sense; but by then it is too late.

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