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Marching to a Different Humdrum : SHADOW PLAY, By Charles Baxter (W.W. Norton: $21.95; 399 pp.)

March 21, 1993|Winston Groom | Groom has published six novels and is presently completing a history of the Civil War battle of Nashville, Tenn., for the Atlantic Monthly Press. His novel "Forrest Gump" will be filmed this summer by Paramount Pictures

Charles Baxter is a clever writer whose purpose in this story is to caricature the humdrum lives of middle-class Americans and provide a cautionary tale of the evils of industrial immorality.

Wyatt Palmer is the assistant city manager of a small Michigan town, the flavor of which is summed up by the following sentence: "His classmates from Five Oaks High had either disappeared out of town or gone down various drains or were working intermittent dumb jobs." Into this unappealing setting, Wyatt returns--after having run away some time earlier--with a wife named Susan whose specialty is performing magic tricks such as pulling coins from behind people's ears, walking on her hands and other entertaining things.

We get to meet his family--the crazy mother and dull father, the eccentric aunt Ellen, who is writing a new bible that embraces the existential philosophy of an absurd universe where God is merely a curious onlooker of human folly, and cousin Cyril who, when he is released from jail, rents an apartment above a beauty parlor and begins a life as a scavenger.

Wyatt and Susan have children, and he takes the job in the city manager's office with a sort of faint hope of improving the way things are. His main accomplishment is assisting Jerry Schwartzwalder--an old high school chum who has defied convention by making it big--in bringing to town a company that manufactures plastics for artificial body parts. As a bonus, Wyatt gets his screwy cousin Cyril-the-scavenger a job at the plant.

Meanwhile, we are treated to large doses of the meager Sturm und Drang of life in Five Oaks. Aunt Ellen is working furiously on her scriptures and jots down truths as they come to her: "Everything written about God is wrong. . . . The world exists because God is curious about it," she says, at the same time dispensing advice based on her philosophy: "Have some adventures! . . . Avoid irony! . . . Share beautiful things! . . . Take responsibility!"

Not only that, but Wyatt's own slightly nutty mother has emerged as something of a linguistic inventor, devising new words like zarklike, nutomberized, bremuss and descorbitant. In fact, practically everybody in this Dullsville, USA, is cramped by artsy allusions to Strindberg, Grant Wood, Montaigne, Don Quixote, Matisse, John Stuart Mill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Simone Weil, Robert Louis Stevenson, Chopin, Schumann, Shakespeare, Vermeer, Bonnard, Kant, William Blake, Macaulay, Swedenborg and so on.

Furthermore, I guess to balance things off toward the folksy, the reader is treated from the beginning to a litany of brand names that almost constitutes an advertising campaign for entities such as Cheerios, Macy's, Jack Daniel's, S.S. Kresge, Woolworth's, Budweiser, Oldsmobile, Dr. Pepper, Jeep, AlumaCraft, Hershey, IGA, Xerox, Dodge, Saf-T-Seat, McDonald's, Styrofoam, Coke, Rainbird, Dairy Queen, Chevy, M & M's, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Kleenex and Ivory Soap.

About midway through the book, things start to heat up when old friend Jerry Swartzwalder's chemical plant, WaldChem, is found to be environmentally unsafe. In fact, the air inside the plant is anywhere from a pink to a yellow to a blue fog; illegal discharges are discovered and barrels of toxic waste are being sent to Mexico for disposal. Workers inside the plant are sick and dying, including Wyatt's cousin Cyril, but, "they aren't saying much, on account of their wages are good. And you know how it is with these whistle blowers . . . people get their houses bombed, their cars pushed off the road and all that other fine American stuff."

Of course, this puts Wyatt in a quandary; after all, he was responsible for WalChem coming to Five Oaks in the first place, and he has to decide whether he's made a Faustian bargain with Schwartzwalder or is he going to blow the whistle himself? When Cyril finally commits suicide in lieu of the lingering death in store for him, Aunt Ellen uses the occasion to take her soapbox public, and frame for the citizens of Five Oaks the credo on which this story turns--which, in her own words, is this: "You might as well pray to a telephone pole. I mean, If God loved us, we would know it, wouldn't we? . . . This God just does not care beyond being curious about how every event works out. . . . This God does not love us. . . . We have to save the world if we want to live in it, because God won't."

Naturally, Wyatt must now take a stand; which one must be left for the reader to divine. Baxter has created a scenario in which alienation and anxiety are the norm, a kind of dubious universe where people are neither good nor evil but instead are driven by 20th-Century pragmatism into a twilight zone of utter practicality. There are many delightful side stories in this book, but it is for readers other than myself to find satisfaction in its themes.

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