With his exhilarating sprinter's gait and a serious ability to surprise us at 200 and 500 yards, T. Coraghessan Boyle has run a five-miler with mixed results.
"World's End" is a complex historical cycle, flavored with an original pungency, set in the old Dutch country of New York's Hudson Valley. Three families, going back respectively to a powerful patroon, to one of the patroon's tenant farmers, and to the displaced Kitchawank Indians, play out their bitter and ironic entanglements over 300 years.
The characters--oppressors and oppressed, betrayers and betrayed, seducers, rebels and holy fools--appear and reappear, cast in roles that repeat themselves over the generations. When young Walter Van Brunt turns his back on his family's leftist traditions in the 1960s and goes to work for a wealthy descendant of the Van Wart patroons, he re-enacts a betrayal by Wouter Van Brunt in the 1720s. The half-Indian Jeremy Mohonk, whom Wouter denounced for defying the Van Warts, was hanged; in 1931, another Jeremy Mohonk begins 15 hellish years in Sing Sing after attacking another Van Wart. Wouter smolders when he catches sight of the smoldering Saskia Van Wart; Walter ignites when he meets the pyromaniac Mardi Van Wart 10 generations later.
A sweeping historical saga? Not at all. Boyle is attempting something more ambitious and more difficult. The present of his story is the more or less recognizable present: suburban adultery and real estate, counterculture kids, sex, drugs and an instance or two of growing up. It is invaded by the past; by ghosts, first of all--more or less literal ones--and then by stories. Telling what happened among the Van Warts, the Van Brunts and the Mohonks in the 1680s, the 1720s and then--skipping way forward--in the 1920s and 1940s, these stories are conveyed directly to the reader, largely over the heads of the present-day characters. But all this recurring and ghost-ridden past aims to give them a darkling and often comical dimension of fatality.
Boyle is a joyful and sinuous storyteller who revels in his own momentum and makes us revel in it as well. His fatality is an intriguing device that gives an edge to the stories for a while, but eventually proves cumbersome and unwieldy.
The stories go backward, forward and sideways. Earliest is the history of Harmanus, first of the Van Brunts. He settles a piece of land on the huge estates of the Van Warts and prospers for a while. Eventually, a curse hits him: a ravening hunger that has him gobbling up all the household's food and after that, its seed grain. The curse will recur three centuries later: Walter devastates his employer's refrigerator in an uncontainable fit of greed.
Harmanus dies in a grotesque accident, his house burns down, his wife and a son are killed, and Katrinchee, his daughter, runs off with an Indian named Mohonk. The only survivor is a young boy, Jeremias, who is turned off the land by the Van Warts' bailiff. Raised by some charitable neighbors, he comes back as an adult to reclaim his tenancy. He is joined by Katrinchee, half-mad, and her half-Indian son, Jeremy.
Jeremias is proud and rebellious, but eventually the Van Warts subdue him. His son, Wouter, initially rebellious, not only gives way in time but turns spy, delivering up his Indian cousin and a friend to the patroon's terminal justice.
Each of these families' signs is set. For the Van Warts, it is imperious and unscrupulous control; for the Van Brunts, it is vacillating submission; for the Mohonks, it is perpetual defiance.
In the 1940s, we encounter the Van Brunts as a working class family with links to the Communist Party, living in a left-wing colony in Peterskill. (Boyle was raised in Peekskill, N.Y., which serves as a model for Peterskill and some of the events that take place there.)
Truman Van Brunt, mercurial and charming, carries the family mark of treachery; it drives him into a chilly depression and a secret understanding with the local magnate, De Peyster Van Wart. When a big left-wing rally is held in the vicinity, Truman works with a gang of right-wing vigilantes who break it up, bloodily. Then he disappears.
His wife dies, literally of shame. Walter, his son, is brought up to detest his father as a traitor. But Walter himself, originally a likable, aimless young man, is turned bit by bit. Part of the turning is generational rebellion, part is a need to find a lost father, part is the twin seduction of De Peyster's patronage and his daughter's charms. And part, of course, is the family stain.
After finding his father--in Alaska--Walter ends as a vicious zombie who comes to an end almost as grotesque as that of Harmanus, who began it all.