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Women Who Play the Waiting Game : THE WAITING ROOM by Mary Morris (Doubleday: $17.95; 272 pp.)

May 28, 1989|Brett Singer | Singer's most recent novel is "Footstool in Heaven." She is working on her third novel.) and

The men went off to fight the war and the women stayed home and passed the time doing what women have always done best: waiting for men to return. Spate of novels written by men about the War We Chose to Forget, then chose a decade later to publicize, then televise, then finally vulgarize, has a growing counterpart of novels written by women about that period of waiting and longing and the women who waited and longed.

Mary Morris' fifth book and second novel, "The Waiting Room," joins the distinguished company of women's Vietnam novels by Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason, among others. "The Waiting Room," however, is only obliquely about Vietnam, and though it takes place in the '70s, the years the war limped home, it is not a historical novel, in no sense documentary. It reminds one more of Marilynne Robinson's sensuous novel, "Housekeeping," than novels chronicling the Vietnam War. Its subject is waiting, mourning, loss; its subject is Eros, love, death.

Zoe Coleman, who leaves home after her father breaks up her defiant love affair with the town bad boy, isn't the only woman who waits. Her mother, June, and her grandmother, Naomi, are also veterans of lost love, women who outlasted their longing.

Morris doesn't keep us moored in the '70s. We travel back to Russia where Naomi grew into womanhood, hiding from the Cossacks in a grave her mother digs in the loamy Russian soil. Buried alive, she hears the sounds of her mother being raped. Naomi leaves for America, waits 10 years for her countryman Ivan, then buries him on her wedding day, a virgin in a white dress.

June, alone of the three women, marries the man she really loves. After their daughter Zoe is born, Cal is sent off to fight World War II. A promising photo journalist, he spends the war shooting pictures of the enemy from the air. A virile young man when he goes off to fight, he returns to June broken and crazed. The war has entered his soul and though she waits patiently for him to come 'round, to return to himself, his fate and their love is lost to time.

During World War II, June works as a broadcaster for the local radio station in the Midwestern town of Brewerton--named for one of its two industries--the breweries that give the very air an inebriating edge, and the exporting of ice to exotic climes. Over the air, she gives advice to her sister war brides:

"June's voice had a sweet and West sound when it came over the radio. . . . She'd give women tips on beauty. How they should stay out of the sun. How they should put tape on their foreheads during the day or while their men were away at the war, to keep their faces from wrinkling.

"War widows would write to June and say how she had given them the strength to go on. Sometimes June would read these letters on the air. They were from women whose husbands had been overseas for two or three years and they'd tell June how every night they'd put the masking tape on their brows, the cream on their faces because they did not want their men when they returned to think that time had passed at all."

Time passes anyway. Neither love, nor the patient beauty of war brides is assurance against the passing of time. Men die, men return, some men--Zoe's brother--cross the border into Canada and come back without their minds--shell-shocked by "uppers and downers and gliders and sliders. . . . Duby or grass or bhang . . ., ayahuasca and even an A-bomb and poppies. . . . Buttons and hash, blues and shrooms, black beauties and purple hearts. . . ."

The Purple Hearts of World War II have been transmogrified into the chemicals of the '60s--the drugs that distanced the men--resisters and soldiers alike--from the painfulness of war, its tedium, its anomie. The women at home are not alone when it comes to the sheer boredom--of waiting. Waiting for love, waiting to live, waiting to kill, waiting to die.

Badger lies in the Heartland Clinic waiting for nothing at all. And, it is Badger's drug-induced madness that finally brings the women together--his sister, his mother, his grandmother, waiting for him to get well.

This is a novel against Thomas Wolfe, a beautiful book about the return of a prodigal daughter. Two things have called Zoe home: her brother's descent into madness and the fact that Brewerton, located on icy Lake Michigan, has the strongest magnetic pull of any place in the world except the North Pole. Her mother never finds the chance to tell her daughter what she has learned: ". . . Love isn't something you sit around and hope will come to you. . . . It isn't something you wait for. It's something you do."

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