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Obsession as Destiny : IN THE COUNTRY OF DESIRE, By Leslie Garrett (HarperCollins: $22; 375 pp.)

August 02, 1992|Diane Leslie | Leslie is a Los Angeles writer at work on her second novel

After Leslie Garrett wrote his first novel "The Beasts," for which he won the prestigious Maxwell Perkins award in 1966, he fell into a life of drugs and alcohol which eventually led to his being pronounced D.O.A. after a suicide attempt. I, for one, am exultant that he recovered because his new novel, "In The Country of Desire," is a masterpiece.

The "desire" of the title is in fact obsession. Every character in Garrett's mythical present-day country has one. Their dark obsessions rule their destinies just as the Fates do in myth. The threads of these mortals' lives are unraveled in an intricately constructed plot and elegant prose.

At the heart of this novel is Willa Rhineman. Brought up by her grandparents on a small isolated farm, her one ambition is to find the mother she has never known. As soon as her grandmother dies she packs a small suitcase and retrieves the money hidden in her grandfather's hollowed-out Bible. "She had taken the Bible after her grandfather died, and inside it had found the only photograph she had ever seen of her mother and small packages sealed in tinfoil she knew by then were condoms."

The ominous hint in the Bible might dampen a less determined girl's fervor. But willful Willa heads for the city, where she believes her mother Madeleine ran 16 years ago. Once arrived, Willa, like Dante, wanders around hell descrying a profusion of sins and temptations. Also like Dante, Willa has been given an escort of sorts--an odd, foreboding, uneducated Virgil--though she is mostly oblivious to him. Vernon Monday--a name that invites endless speculation--has his own obsessions that compel him to dog Willa's steps. He is a "strikingly ugly man" so weary of rejection that his only real contact with people comes from following strangers and stealing small articles of their clothing. He's shocked when Willa talks to him and astonished at her suggestion that she spend the night in his room, where she "drift(s) off in the position in which she had arranged herself for him, crucified by sleep." Though she quickly forgets him, Willa becomes Vernon's sole preoccupation.

Intertwined in Willa's story is her grandfather's history. Here Garrett gives penetrating psychological insight into a complex individual. A charming, dangerous, and morally undeveloped man, Emil Rhineman is explored and exposed in striking images and symbols. The reader receives him begrudgingly yet mesmerized; Emil's fixations are the stuff of our dreams and our myths.

At a World War II army training camp, Emil lost half his foot and two fingers due to his own negligence during grenade practice. After his discharge, he travels around the South working at odd jobs. Handsome and boyish, Emil is a liar who pretends he was wounded at Okinawa. He drinks, takes advantage of women, impregnating them or beating them up, and has to flee from various towns in the middle of the night. But one day--out of fear or the wish for redemption--he momentarily takes stock of himself and heads for "a church with a large cross held up like a hand against the sky." The pastor sends Emil to help a woman with her farm. Lydia is a deeply religious woman, though totally lacking in compassion. She sees Emil for what he is, but still she marries him, and they read from the Bible every night. Their life together is emotionally barren, yet Emil seems content, for a time, with their "contract for his reconstruction, his eventual safe harboring."

The one character who might have defied the fates and saved Willa's mother Madeleine from her bleak destiny is the black minister Lester Kane. But he failed the mother, as he will the daughter. "She even sought out my friendship, and I held her off," he tells Willa about her mother. "Because I believed then--as I know now--that there are no white friends in the country for us yet. Only those who pretend to be, and those who think they are until the time of real testing comes."

Astonishingly, "In the Country of Desire" ends on a note of hope: One character manages to triumph over his obsession through a most unusual catharsis. If the reviewer is allowed a desire of her own here, it is that Leslie Garrett's mental and physical health will flourish so that his compulsion to write can continue to prevail.

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