"Beautiful Islands" is an extremely gentle book, and even the series of disappointments and disasters that propel its plot seem strangely benign as they are measured and carefully taken in by Jack Healy, the astronaut hero of this quaint, familial story.
The novel begins shortly after Healy's return from space. His wife has left him, taking their two young children with her, and though she is involved with another man, the deeper reason for their separation is Healy's commitment to the space program and the secondary position his wife, Peggy, finds herself in because of it.
Feeling alone and lonely in his empty Houston house, Healy sets out for his home town in Colorado. "When I got to Durango, I wanted to tell my parents how glad I was that they got to see that sight--knowing their son was sitting atop those shrieking rockets. I wanted them to know that I owed them a lot and that I really was trying to be a decent adult, but I didn't know how to say it without my words sounding like the maudlin verse in a greeting card." Soon Healy does arrive at home, and once he gets there we begin to understand the ways in which each important character he encounters sees him through the screen of his special profession and what this means to each of them. The most dramatic example is Healy's schizophrenic brother, Mike, who believes that Healy has increased his control over him while in space, a further torturing of their already frustrated relationship.
But Healy is no simple victim of his astronaut influence. Always thoughtful, always measured, he appears as fundamentally untouchable. He doesn't see this, nor is it clear that Russell Martin does. At any rate, the novel's gracefully undistinguished prose is so placidly casual that most expressions are drained of affect. "I realized a year or two ago that there's a reason why I live in California, and it doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with California." This is Healy's sister, Mary, speaking. She's come back to Durango because of a crisis involving their brother Mike. "There's this feeling that I get around Mom and Dad, and Mike too--not you so much--that feels like claustrophobia. Like being in these categories called daughter and sister just boxes me in. The only safe thing is to be a long way away." Maybe so, but it's the idea that convinces, and it's very hard to connect it up with any feeling.
There are exceptions, mostly situational ones. Healy's father is a minister, slightly alcoholic and close to retirement. Hal, a minister friend of his, has recently died of cancer. Hal was buoyed up in his last days by the spectacle of Healy's space flight on television. Upon coming home, Healy becomes involved with Hal's daughter, Jane, who is recovering both from her father's death and the automobile accident in which her husband was killed and she lost a hand. Healy's father has asked him to speak to his congregation about his recent flight. But Healy sets out into the mountain wilderness with Jane to visit the cabin that her recently dead father frequented. It's a kind of pilgrimage. They spend the night together in lovemaking, and Healy misses the talk that he had promised his father he would give. The psychological and moral implications of these events and relationships are complex, and there is surely something intriguing about the way they are displayed, almost totally by way of plot.
The trip that Healy and Jane take is paralleled by another one, a hike into the high mountains of Colorado, another pilgrimage on which Healy and his father climb to the devastated cabin where Healy's tortured brother Mike always wanted to live. It's in the representation of these two journeys where Martin's simple prose is the most effective in its carefully simple presentations of nature. "The wind we had been sheltered from below was strong and icy on the exposed ridge, and we worked quickly, gathering and stacking the sharp-edged rocks into a rough monolith." That's simple, lovely and appropriate, but when it comes to human expression Martin has troubles, especially with women.
Jane, for example, has that cutely optimistic way of speaking that's reminiscent of so many women in tough guy novels, a way that makes it very hard to take women seriously as equals to men. " 'Oh' she said with a long sigh, 'I wish I had pocketed a little wisdom somewhere along the line.' "
"Beautiful Islands" begins to wind down when it comes to a real event, the Space Shuttle disaster, and though nothing is really added to our understanding through Martin's depiction of it, the event provides a pivot for Healy's eventual exit from the space program.