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BOOK REVIEW : Sentimental 'Elephant' Tries Too Hard : THE ELEPHANT by Richard Rayner ; Turtle Bay Books $20; 287 pages.)

March 19, 1992|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Psychoanalysis tells us we must confront a memory of our parents if we are fully to become ourselves. That is one reason why fiction is not psychoanalysis. Fictional characters--particularly in the role of narrator--rarely achieve or receive much vital life simply by wrestling with their fathers or mothers.

On the contrary, if the character does not achieve or receive life on his own or her own, the confrontation is inert, an indulgence.

It is not that the filial-parental bash-up cannot make great literature; look at Hamlet and the Oresteia. But kingdoms and the gods were involved, after all, as well as private feelings.

Much of the father or mother search we get in contemporary American fiction is pretty much as indoors activity: recessive, even a cop-out. It comes easier to us moderns to confront the tiger in ourselves than a real tiger outside. Or, at least, it seems easier to write about.

"The Elephant," by the British writer Richard Rayner, imports the father chase to the once-gritty, now-stricken Yorkshire town of Bradford, home of the late J. B. Priestley and the saying: "Where there's muck there's brass." (Translation: Industrial Britain was grimy in the 19th Century, but it made a lot of money.)

Jack Hamer is the legendary appearing-disappearing con-man father. His story is told by his resentful and unhappy son, Headingly. It is the story of a butterfly recounted by a caterpillar, although the prospect of an eventual filial transformation seems dim.

At the end, after Headingly has scattered Jack's ashes over a favored cricket ground, he tells us: "Ask me now about my father and I will say that he is dead, and that when I look at the back of my hand I see him there." That is a caterpillar kind of wisdom and not much of a flight.

Jack Hamer's picaresque character has a lineage. An uncle was shot for refusing to leave his World War I trench to be shot by the Germans. A more distant forebear flinched as he was guillotined, allowing him to survive, but with a flat-topped head. Jack owns a funeral parlor, puts sugar in the gas tanks of his rivals' hearses and prospers in association with two associates, one of them a smiling swindler and the other a violent thug.

At one point, Jack absconds to South America with his partners' money; when he returns years later, he spends a while in jail, emerging to flourish by such expedients as receiving six pensions under different names. He is grandiose as well as crooked--he buys a cricket pavilion at the other end of England and reassembles it in Bradford--and he has infinite charm.

The charm drives his wife away. "He . . . wanted me always to be there when he came home after a hard day of being Jack Hamer; or an even harder day of Jack Hamer being somebody else," she complains. He has a lifelong affair with an actress and any number of other women.

It is important not to make a pass or anything like that, he tells Headingly. A warm intimacy is the trick. "Let her know that she's a still point and that your life is spinning around her."

Headingly contrasts all this flash with his bewildered, unsettled and miserable childhood. He grows up to be a painful failure as a journalist. He replays his father's roue lessons in a doleful minor key.

Reconciliation of a sort comes only when he nurses Jack in his gruesomely messy final illness, incinerates the corpse inside the cricket pavilion and scatters the ashes.

The book's title refers to Jack's favorite phrase, "Seeing the elephant." It means, he says, something like living life at its extreme. Certainly, there is plenty of extravagant action; some of it, like the pavilion funeral pyre and a hyper-inflated orgy, with a touch of magical realism.

Some of the father's passages are comically engaging, as when he intrudes into a wedding party at a pub and makes such a hit that he emerges wearing the bride's garter. There is a lovely scene where he and his smiling-crook former partner--now bloated and poor--meet as old men and reminisce about times gone by.

Often, though, Rayner tries too hard for prodigies. Jack's larger-than-life figure is often that of a rubber parade float, an inflated and gummy approximation of a stock figure.

And when Headingly tries for extravagance of his own by making a seriocomic attempt to shoot Jack, it is singularly unpersuasive.

Under the flash and the ironic black humor, the narrator's rhetorical and sentimental self-involvement churns uneasily. Instead of setting off the figure of the picaresque father, it provides a contrast that is not so much dark as muddy.

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "The First Wives' Club" by Olivia Goldsmith (Poseidon).

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