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Gumma 'n' Guppa in the Coarse Goods Game : HERB 'N' LORNA by Eric Kraft (Crown Books: $17.95; 352 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Chuck Rosenthal | Rosenthal's most recent novel is "Experiments With Life & Deaf" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Herb 'n' Lorna are nice people. They live ordinary lives. But they share an idiosyncratic secret from each other. When Lorna was a child, she watched as her Uncle Luther seduced her sister, Bertha. More interested than shocked, she later permitted Luther to seduce her, too, stopping short only when she became repulsed by the fact that Luther fingered her with a severely mutilated hand. Nonetheless, this series of events sparks a business relationship between them in which Lorna, inspired by Luther's eroticism, exhibits an uncanny talent for carving copulating figures in small pieces of ivory jewelry which Luther lucratively markets.

Lorna's future husband, Herb Piper of Boston, enters the work force for his Uncle Ben, who uses bookselling as a front for his real business, selling "coarse goods," i.e. erotic jewelry. Herb is Ben's main man. He meets Lorna one day on a bookselling/coarse goods junket to Chacallit, shortened from Whatchamacallit, N.Y., on the Whatsit River (this is the level of humor on which the novel operates, so if you find this funny, you'll be chuckling for 300 pages), and the two begin a courtship and lifelong love affair, sexually inspired and economically nourished by the coarse goods trade which Lorna creates and Herb sells, each too embarrassed by their line of work to ever let the other know they do it.

This dramatic irony is the engine of the novel. The coarse goods trade gets Herb 'n' Lorna through war, the Depression, sensual morass, child rearing, and hard times, even a move to Babbington, N.Y. (where we are treated to a street named Upper and Lower Bolotomy), all the while creating a dialectic between cottage industry and eroticism--sexual positioning inspires the carved figurines, and the figurines lead to experiments in the sexual act. In Babbington, Herb, also a closet inventor, abandons bookselling to become a leading Studebaker salesman, but when the Studebaker empire falls, Herb 'n' Lorna, in an act of despair, confess to each other. Herb's mechanical inventiveness combines with Lorna's creativity and an even more splendid age of coarse goods productivity emerges.

Long before this crisis, Herb 'n' Lorna have a daughter who marries and has child of her own, Peter Leroy, the book's narrator. In the preface to the novel, Leroy explains how he was inspired to write the tale when on the day of his grandmother, Lorna's funeral, he discovered 22 pieces of animated erotic jewelry in a box given to him by May Castle, an old friend of Herb 'n' Lorna's. His own eroticism is provoked, and he realizes, startlingly, that his very own "Gumma" and "Guppa" had interesting sex lives. Way back then.

"Herb 'n' Lorna" is a slow-footed, easygoing novel, unambiguous, accessible, an interminably readable chronological procession of anecdotes about characters incapable of serious indiscretion or ill intent. It's Lit Lite. Eric Kraft never uses one word where several will do, seldom finds an original way to say something if it can be said in a cliche. Situations are told, explained, shown, and explained again. The book is readerly enough to keep Roland Barthes rolling in his grave.

Part of this might be due to an indecisiveness in the narrative voice. Leroy, our first-person biographer, seems uncomfortable with the responsibility of omniscience. His love and fascination for Herb 'n' Lorna bring us almost too close to see them clearly. We get neither the objectivity of a prying omniscience, nor the angle of a narrator with something at stake. The effect is flattening, and I find543781920novel picks up in originality and detail after Leroy is born and his consciousness contextualized by scenes.

At a beach birthday party thrown by May Castle for her husband, and Herb's boss, Garth, the novel can be seen quintessentially. May wanders down the beach, away from the fire, and Herb inexplicably, even to himself, follows her. At the bonfire, Lorna, equally urged by some mystery inside, rubs her hips and breasts on Garth and the two head down the beach in the opposite direction.

Herb seduces May, and Lorna Garth, but Herb 'n' Lorna have simultaneous misgivings. Herb, at the point of copulation, tells May, "Stop that," but thinks, Don't stop. Stop . Lorna doesn't want to make love at all. She can't tell Garth, but she simply wants to touch and watch. Neither indiscretion is consummated, and the couples return to the fire, each fearing the other has been unfaithful.

Here our narrator, Leroy, intrudes to quote something Proust "probably" says about love and misunderstanding (one only wishes that Kraft himself had learned more from Proust), then tells us, "Neither Herb nor Lorna ever said a word about that night. Neither dared ask, 'Did you--?' Neither dared say, 'I was just curious, you see--' Lorna supposed that she understood what Herb had done and why. Each loved the other too much to ask for an explanation, so they provided their own. Each was too timid to ask for a description, so they provided their own. They were faithful to each other for the rest of their lives, and each forgave the other for that lone transgression, which they blamed on the heat of the moment, supposing that heat to be the heat not of knowledge's flickering lamp, but of lust's consuming flame."

Such is the hackneyed prose, the lackluster irony, the utter explicitness, the niceness, the optimism of "Herb 'n' Lorna." It's a pretty bland world, blandly written.

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