Gabriel's Lament by Paul Bailey (Viking: $17.95, 331 pages)
"Gabriel's Lament" takes 330 pages to set out a son's hard thoughts about his father, and one paragraph to proclaim a very conditional filial absolution. The paragraph is on Page 331. Had it come on Page 1, there would have been no book.
Lamentation can be an irksome tone to maintain. Paul Bailey's novel contains a whole set of talky and eccentric London characters; the talkiest and most eccentric being Oswald Harvey. But whatever pleasure the reader might have found in them is dampened by the dismally captious narrator, Oswald's son Gabriel. It is a sled ride with one foot dragging.
Gabriel's account of life with and without father, a bumptious, nouveau-riche vulgarian, is interrupted repeatedly with cries of "Mummy!"
His earliest memories of Oswald are of a cheerful, even kindly layabout, dependent on the earnings of his wife, 35 years younger, who worked at what both parents agreed to call her "secret place." The term keeps a mild suspense going throughout the book, but it is rather deflating to learn at the end that Amy Harvey's secret place was simply the kitchen at Buckingham Palace, where she worked on vegetables.
Oswald's character changes utterly when a bequest from a former employer makes him suddenly rich. He buys a big ugly house, which he fills with ugly furniture, and with airs and pretensions of every sort. From being an amiable spinner of far-fetched yarns, he becomes arrogant, didactic and authoritarian. No longer does he call Gabriel "lad"; now it is "young man" and what follows is a lecture instead of a tale.
Not long afterward, Amy, unable to stand the change, disappears. Oswald tells Gabriel she has simply run off to have fun; and Gabriel grows up with a piercing sense of abandonment. He is obsessed with "Mummy"; he is unable to love women, and once a year, on her birthday, he puts on a dress that reminds him of her.
Gabriel's laments for Amy are doleful punctuation. What they punctuate is his account of growing up with Oswald, leaving home to work in a succession of menial jobs in the London slums, and eventually writing a book about an itinerant preacher that, quite inexplicably, is bought by Hollywood and makes him rich in his turn.
The jobs and the book-writing are rather hazy. Mostof the novel, lamenting apart, is devoted to the characters Gabriel meets. There is his aunt, who has lived a colorfully erratic life and ends up kinder, wiser and a disciple of Swedenborg. There is an ebullient postman who goes into depressive psychosis when he is taken off the night shift and has to spend waking time with his wife.
There is Nazareth, a native of Goa who is sensible as well as quirky, and who eventually makes good. There is an alcoholic former barrister who breaks down out of obsession over a case he has lost. And most of all, there is Oswald himself.
He is a fountain of prejudices. He warns against men who wear suede shoes, loathes all racial minorities, and despises the poor and those he considers vulgar. He was once a servant to a baronet--it is the latter's money that he inherited--and he assumes all the airs that he imagines are proper to the aristocracy.
He is continually, offensively patronizing about Gabriel, urging him to make something of himself, to have an active sex life and to avoid homosexuality. It is natural enough that Gabriel should resent this; what distorts the narration is the intensity of Gabriel's hatred and contempt.
Poles of Negativity
If the father is all small and vulgar desires; the son is all pained renunciations. The reader is suspended in a kind of vacuum between these two poles of negativity.
At the end, there is a series of revelations, which might have more effect if the mysteries they resolved had been gripping us all along. After Oswald's death, Gabriel opens a packet of letters that reveals that his mother's escape had been very brief indeed. She had spent a month or two in a succession of London hotels, taking casual lovers and eventually committing suicide.
As for Oswald, a half-brother discloses that for all his emphasis on manly sex, one of the services he performed for his baronet was an episode or two of vaguely homosexual foreplay.
All this allows Gabriel to rid himself of his parental obsessions. He tears up the dress he put on for his mother's birthdays, and takes a mistress. As for his father, he is able after so much contempt, to think of him more tenderly as "my lecturer, my dissembler, my old dad."
It is a purgation, of sorts. But a reader who has been less than fully engaged by Gabriel's anguish is unlikely to share it.