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FICTION : THE BEGINNING OF SORROWS by David Martin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $16.95; 256 pp.).

August 16, 1987|Michael Carroll

If this story is to be read at all, it is for the telling, not the tale. As the story unfolds, one has the sense of hearing it rather than reading it. This is the poet's skill.

There are two voices: Alva's, whose memory hints at darkness; and the author's, evoking with excruciating precision a past landscape of place and soul.

Beside the Illinois River lies Beaker's Bride, a Midwestern town on the verge of death. Here Alva lives with her son, Jess--fat, ungainly, perhaps autistic, certainly withdrawn--and Jess' grandfather Bonner, who like Beaker's Bride carries his death within him.

Into these lives comes Johnny Reace. Johnny is a flare of a man, possessing a heat that burns more than warms, a brightness that distorts more than illuminates. The darkness that follows him is a mere inevitability.

This is a story of a descent, of a town, its people, and four souls in particular descending into blackness.

Be warned! There is no redemption, no moral vision, no great tragedy--just a final stunning despair. Like Johnny Reace, "The Beginning of Sorrows" grips you with its voice, leads you on with false hopes, and in the end leaves your spirit mortally wounded.

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