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Book Review : There's Trouble Afoot When May Meets the Israeli Dwarfs

August 31, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

White Light by Patricia Volk (Atheneum: $18.95; 256 pages)

May Graves, a married, harried woman in her late 30s, works at Golly magazine and is pretty much at the end of her tether. She is one of a group of New York women who ". . . steal spare rolls of toilet paper from the ladies room at work . . . feel lonelier when they're with people than they feel when they're alone . . . think of things they don't want to be thinking about . . . forget their husband's names and fill with panic . . . speak three languages but know no math . . . postpone having babies until they have to have them implanted by syringe or grown in a petri dish. . . . " And so on.

May Graves has had it with kiwi fruit and neon. She's had it with her dumb job at Golly, that publication for the mothers of teens, which does not acknowledge "the existence of drugs, premarital sex, interracial dating or social disease." She's had it with her poor old dying dad and her nagging cartoon of a Jewish mother; she's had it with her dentist-husband, Roy, who owns more jogging suits than most men have business suits, a moron who pinches her on the behind and kneads her breasts like bread dough and always manages to dribble a little oatmeal off his lower lip at breakfast.

Going for the 'Graben'

So--May decides to flee the scene. She remembers a wonderful resort hotel in the Adirondacks where her family used to go for summer vacations; a place built next to a garnet mine, and beside a lake that is really a "graben"--spring-fed, very deep and icy cold.

May returns to the resort to find it a complete ruin--not just dilapidated but utterly smushed, except for one room that's been put in apple-pie order for her.

Two people still remain in charge of the Garnet Hotel; an old woman who isn't pertinent to the story, and her spooky grandson, Pitt Garth, whose dad drove long ago out on the lake's ice one night, "drunk on sex and whiskey," fell through and drowned. Pitt spends his days--indeed, his life--scuba diving to find the car, so that he can drop a tombstone on that historic wreckage. When he isn't doing that, he rakes wave patterns in the sand by the lake.

May finds, of course, that it's not so easy to run away. Only four days pass before her husband, Roy, is up at the hotel with her, sweating through his jogging outfits, making stupid remarks, pinching her behind, all in a misguided effort to get her to have sex with him again. Roy spends the rest of his time tying elaborate trout-flies in order to fish the lake; a futile activity at best, since Pitt has already revealed to May that the lake is utterly dead because of acid rain, and the forest around them is dying as well.

About this time, May and Roy meet a swarm of Israeli dwarfs, and any way you slice it, this is where the novel gets into trouble. If the author is dealing with symbols, and it certainly seems that she is (Sleeping Beauty's enchanted castle, a place where everything is "asleep," those garnets red as blood, a husband whose name translates to King), then these dwarfs come out of the Snow White legend, and are instrumental in getting the couple together again. I guess you could say that works, awkwardly. And if the author is dealing with coming to terms with her lost and dying Jewish heritage, the dwarfs do that too, with their insistence on Hassidic ways, and so on.

There's only one human being in this book, the novelist/narrator, and she's afflicted with a very sincere case of loathing for much of the human race and for the human condition. Her words about sex make you shiver, her descriptions of male drool make you wonder. In the words of my sainted old dad, if Patricia Volk were a man and had a mustache, she'd have Limburger cheese stuck in it: She must think the whole world stinks.

What's the happy ending here? The couple comes home. Someone dies. Everyone's going to try harder. Maybe this novel just has too many elements in it. Or maybe Volk should pay some close attention to the way other characters talk. Maybe she just bit off more than she could chew. Because some passages here are very funny and smart. "White Light" just does not hold together as a novel.

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