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Way Down in Maggie's Land : DREAMS OF LEAVING by Rupert Thomson (Atheneum: $19.95; 448 pp.)

May 01, 1988|Douglas Sun | Sun is a second-year graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. He is also seeking a publisher for his own first novel. and

Imagine this as the plot of a novel: A village in the south of England called New Egypt is tyrannized by a local constabulary that refuses to let people leave. Those who try to escape are brutally punished; those who don't lead dreary lives and in time wither and die. A villager named George Highness longs to escape but decides that the best he can do is to free his infant son Moses by floating him down a nearby river in a basket of rushes. In order to fool the sinister Chief Inspector Peach, he pretends that the boy has drowned. Moses grows up an adopted son and immerses himself in London's seedy nightclub underworld once he comes of age, while Peach nurses lingering suspicions about the boy's fate. At last, after 25 years, Peach decides to hunt down and punish the only person ever to escape from New Egypt. It's an interesting idea, full of thematic possibilities involving the nature of oppression and freedom, urban versus rural life--to say nothing of the obvious biblical parallels. And if Rupert Thomson had the writerly skill and sound judgment to match his basic premise, he would have written a better first novel than "Dreams of Leaving."

His problems begin at the very beginning; his first chapter falls flat when it should grab us by the arm and yank us into the novel. A writer with more rhetorical savvy would have presented a vivid and compelling portrait of a cruel police force ruling over a sad village full of hopeless lives. Instead, Thomson tells us that life in New Egypt is oppressive and that Peach and his police force are evil without showing us much concrete evidence. He saves his most effective writing for lyrical descriptions of the English countryside, and as a result, we never feel that New Egypt is as horrible as he says. His portraiture becomes more effective as the novel proceeds, but he never really recovers from this weak opening.

Nor does it help matters that "Dreams of Leaving" is also overwritten. Thomson could have cut, condensed or melded a good half of the scenes without causing any damage. Instead, he glopped a fatty body onto the skeleton of the plot, a body so flabby that the most important moments in the story are lost amid the hanging flesh. We don't need that many scenes of drug-taking and rampant sexual activity to get the feel of the adult Moses' world, and one or two minor characters could disappear without being missed. And when important moments in the story do come up, Thomson fails to heighten them. They pass before our eyes, and we sense that something important has happened without feeling anything.

To his credit, Thomson does show some skill as a stylist; his figurations are almost always imaginative, and he modulates deftly between languorousness in his rustic scenes and a tighter, more ironic style in his London scenes. But he can also abuse the device of writing in sentence fragments--the "This-Sentence-No-Verb" stuff that too often passes for terseness these days--until you want to slap him around out of sheer annoyance.

But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of "Dreams of Leaving" is Thomson's failure to pick up on the tantalizing thematic possibilities that he dangles through the author's power of naming. An infant named Moses born in New Egypt--a place ruled by a vaguely Pharaonic police chief--and left among the bulrushes by his parents? Thomson has us begging for some kind of emotional or intellectual resonance based on these allusions, but he never delivers. One expects a guest narrative, a heroic adventure, a story about a messiah figure, maybe even a revenge tragedy. But the damn novel just lies there . Nothing resonates. Moses, the central character, personifies this problem. He is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a complete non-hero: He is passive, doesn't change or grow during the novel, doesn't do much of anything, but remains an aimless wise guy who is intensely annoying when Thomson intends him to be witty and free-spirited.

Instead of compelling fiction, Thomson gives us unnecessary scenes of drunken brawling, cocaine disappearing into nasal mucosa and coupled bodies moving in rhythm in between plot developments. Which isn't to say that a good novel must be tame, but the titillation in "Dreams of Leaving" has no weight. Take its depictions of substance abuse: A writer such as Hunter S. Thompson, for instance, describes the sensations of drug use so that they seem amusing, horrific or even both. He achieves a palpable literary effect with them. But Thomson inevitably writes that So-and-So did a line of coke and leaves it at that. So what? Who cares? Is this negligent glibness supposed to be hip or something?

At its heart, "Dreams of Leaving" is nothing more than another pretentious sex-'n'-drugs-'n'-rock-'n'-roll novel whose real purpose is to show how cool and cynical it is while delivering the standard goodies of the contemporary potboiler. It's the sort of novel that young writers are supposed to be producing nowadays if they want instant celebrity--and one could launch into a jeremiad about the literary sins of Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and their ilk at this point if one had the column inches for it. Suffice it to say that "Dreams of Leaving" is a lot of flash with little fire, but if Thomson is lucky, someone just might crown him The Voice of His Generation.

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