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A Clash of Appetites in the Bosom of a 'Good Family' : THEIR PRIDE AND JOY by Paul Buttenwieser (Delacorte: $18.95; 442 pp.)

January 31, 1988|Brett Singer | Singer's most recent novel, "Footstool in Heaven," is due from Fawcett/Ballantine in March. and

Before anorexia and bulimia came to national attention in the 1970s, people were certainly dying of eating disorders. Paul Buttenwieser, who is a psychoanalyst as well as a novelist, creates in "Their Pride and Joy" a family drama so quietly heartbreaking that even the Gutheims would approve.

The Gutheims are an old German-Jewish New York family known for their good works, their art collection, their impeccable taste and their ethical commitment. They are fictional embodiments of "Our Crowd," as depicted in Stephen Birmingham's famous work of nonfiction.

It is no accident that "Gutheim" means "good home" in German. What Alan and Peggy Gutheim have tried to pass on to their three children involves several meanings of good: "good stock," as well as "good works" and "good taste." The children are meant to marry within their own circle, enjoy the good life for themselves, do good for others, create their own good homes and children of good bloodlines. Days they spend in hospitals, settlement houses, orphanages--wherever the less fortunate are gathered. Nights they spend in their private box at the Metropolitan Opera, or going through the many solicitations each day's mail brings--deciding which good causes will benefit their name, their fortune and their time.

The two younger Gutheim children, coming of age in the late 1950s, find it difficult to accept the mantle with the easy noblesse oblige of another time. The principal action of the novel takes place during the last two months of 1960--the beginning of that infamous decade in which so many good families lost a child to history.

Joan Gutheim is 21 and a senior at Bennington College when her mother receives the phone call that tolls the beginning of the end. When the dean of student life informs her that her only daughter has fainted on the library path, Peggy Gutheim is annoyed:

"Fainted! People didn't faint anymore. Not in this day and age. No, something didn't fit.

"For Peggy Gutheim, it was important that things fit, that they ran well. The smooth functioning of her life was important, not so much as an end in itself, but because it released her to her main occupation in the world, which was to be of help. . . ."

By the end of the same day, Peggy has arranged for Joan to make herself useful at a settlement house in the Bowery. One of the many surprises Meyer House holds for Joan is Kevin, a rehabilitated street tough who works with juvenile delinquents, teaching them to box. Where Joan is used to aristocratic, sexually restrained young men whose ardor is directed toward protection and provision, Kevin is all muscle, smells, the consummate devouring Other.

Joan's erotic longing for Kevin, the nostalgie de la boue from which she will never recover, is tied up with her project of systematic self-denial.

"She was ravenously hungry, which contributed to her euphoria. She reveled in the anticipation of watching the others eat while strictly abstaining herself. The discipline allowed her to savor more fully her exquisite sexual excitement."

Buttenwieser's other life as a psychoanalyst has given him rare and honest insight into the secret heart of the anorectic. We are privileged to benefit from his expert knowledge of mental illness.

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