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What It Meant to Be His Son : TALLIEN by Fredric Tuten (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; 135 pp.)

May 15, 1988|RICHARD EDER

How does a son lay his father to rest? By telling him a story, even though he's no longer around to hear it. It may not explain the father's life, but it aims to put it in a context that will make it understandable. Not to the father, of course; he's dead. To the son. We bury the dead not for the dead but for ourselves.

In his graceful and provocative novel, Fredric Tuten uses a narrator that seems to be himself. So he makes us believe, in any case. Whether Rex and Madelyn, to whom the book is dedicated and who appear in it as the narrator's father and mother, are Tuten's biological or fictional parents is not especially important. But we might as well call the narrator Tuten, since Tuten invites us to.

Rex was a mixture of Southern charm and Southern Baptist obduracy. He was an idealist, a man of the Left, a labor organizer who moved north in the 1930s, and withstood bribes, beatings and a jail term as he went about trying to unionize restaurant workers in the Bronx.

To a boy, he seemed a figure to be proud of; except that his idealism left his family bereft and adrift. Money arrived irregularly; bills went unpaid and, worst of all, Rex's presence at home became increasingly irregular, and finally he ran off altogether. Space is curved; ultimately, the straight-shooter came to seem a little bent.

"Rex, the radical Prince of the Confederacy, under whose ceaseless guard none would suffer except his periodically abandoned family, unpaid bills rolling up like waves against the door, his decade-old son staring up at the light bulbs, waiting for them, like stars blinking off into cold cinders, to go dead when the current was cut off for failure of payment."

That is Tuten as bewildered son. It is also Tuten as writer of a sinuous prose that lances out in sudden rhetorical passion and then doubles wryly back upon itself.

Tuten-son, sporting a faint Bronx inflection, interrogates his father whom he visits upon his deathbed without getting any satisfaction. And he goes on to interrogate the whole idea of radical commitment; a commitment that leaves little boys half-orphaned and, even when it wins its revolution, is followed by tyranny and, after a while, by a corrupt and oppressive bureaucracy.

But he needs a story for his father. And so he tells him, or imagines he does, the history of Jean Lambert Tallien, an almost-forgotten figure of the French Revolution.

Tallien was a participant in the Terror. He was successively a collaborator of Danton and of Robespierre; and an organizer of the Thermidor revolt that brought the Terror down, and then gave way to the stolid, corrupt Directorate and, ultimately, to Napoleon.

Tuten's Tallien is honest and indecisive; swayed alternately by revolutionary and sexual passion. He is a leaf in a historical whirlwind, ascending unsteadily in a conflictive mix of ambition, zealotry and scruples, and then buried by the weight of a world that silts up the channels opened by revolutionaries, idealistic or otherwise.

Son of an upper servant in a nobleman's household, Tallien wins his master's favor and is sent to Paris to apprentice with a lawyer. Instead, he joins a printer's shop and writes and prints revolutionary manifestoes. He organizes the popular festivities that accompany the revolution and soon finds himself on the all-powerful Committee of Public Safety.

From time to time, he attempts to moderate an excessive judgment or two, and he makes a half-hearted effort to prevent the butchery of detained suspects in the revolutionary prisons. His scruples never go beyond what is prudent, until he falls passionately in love with Therese de Fontenay, the jailed widow of a count, obtains her release and moves into her luxurious Paris apartment.

The liaison makes him vulnerable to the extreme Jacobins. Along with other revolutionaries on Robespierre's death-list, he engineers the parliamentary coup that puts Robespierre into the guillotine and, in effect, brings the Revolution to an end.

It also begins Tallien's own downfall. After a brief spell in power, he and his fellow Thermidoreans are pushed out by more pragmatic political groups. He finds himself without a job, Therese leaves him, and his History of the Causes of the Revolution is a failure, being excessively balanced in tone and insufficiently scandalous for the post-revolutionary appetite. He falls into destitution and neglect, never quite understanding what has brought him down.

The portrait of Tallien is sympathetic and skeptical at the same time; ostensibly, he is a kind of reverse Pangloss for whom the world gets worse and worse. But Tuten is employing a layered complexity that keeps us perpetually off balance, and perpetually entertained.

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