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Missing the Broad Skies : IONA MOON, By Melanie Rae Thon (Poseidon Press: $21; 287 pp.)

July 25, 1993|Julia Cameron | Cameron is the author of "The Artist's Way."

Accomplished short story writer Melanie Rae Thon has given us her third book, a novel--or what may, or may not, be a novel. Episodic, less a novel than a series of interrelated short stories strung together, it is freighted with the level of detail requisite to a successful story and catastrophic to a novel. The book resists reading like an overcrowded room resists entry. Titled "Iona Moon," it is a litany of miseries, lovingly and microscopically detailed, told with claustrophobic intensity. Joyce Carol Oates, who has admired Thon's stories, would also envy this gothic plot.

Iona is molested by her brothers. Her friend Sharla is impregnated by her father. Their friends the Frye boys both come to bad ends: Everett returns from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress and kills himself by blowing his head off. His brother Matt also sustains a blow to his head. It renders him the village idiot in a village full of idiots.

Is anyone ever happy? Iona wonders. "She had never known anyone who was happy."

In this book, neither do we.

Iona's mother dies a lingering death from cancer. We count her bedsores along with Iona. Then, Iona's brother gets Jeweldeen, Sharla's sister, pregnant. Jay Tyler, the town heartthrob and diving champion, has a philandering father, a drunken mother and impregnates Muriel Arnoux, himself. Then he breaks both his legs for good measure. Young Willy Hamilton, friend to all of the above, has an affair with Jay Tyler's mother, Delores.

"While Willy was in the bathroom, Delores turned on the light to gather up her clothes. He found her that way, on her knees, white rump in the air, looking under the bed. . . ."

Bear in mind that this novel is called "Iona Moon," so back to her. Iona Moon leaves town. She flees to Seattle to a urine-soaked flop house. Unfortunately, she takes herself and her take on life with her. "Everything reeked: the bathroom, the hall, streets ripened with the stench of garbage, a fermenting mash, cans full of corn husks and apple peels, chicken fat and black bananas." She endures the gropings of her boss at an all-night convenience store and undertakes a love affair with a married, one-legged Indian. When she is fired for shoplifting, she returns home and. . . .

There are lives of such misery everywhere in America, everywhere in the world. Thon's compulsive specificity in rendering the negativity of such lives creates a skewed universe in which events, large or small, are accorded equal weight. Reading "Iona Moon," is like trying to sort through a family attic. If you sort long enough, through enough stuff, you stop caring or knowing what's valuable and what's just plain stuff.

It is not so much a failure of imagination as a failure of imaginative scope. This vision is a choice. When everything matters equally, nothing matters. Foreground, background and middle ground are annihilated. Nothing is drawn to scale. Thon is the Diane Arbus of writers. She focuses on the freakish, the grotesque, the carnival of errors. As she views the small town of White Falls, it is life through a fish-eye lens, a distorting, uglifying vision:

"She saw a pair of lovers on a porch across the street, bodies pressed tight and locked, frightening pair, Siamese twins joined from mouth to knee, shared heart and shared spleen, all their blood flowing, one to another."

In short stories, as in all forms of literature, there are trends. Much of "Iona Moon" appeared first in literary journals. Thon's style is emblematic of all that is right, wrong and current. The American short story, which once focused on the lives of the bright and urbane, now focuses on the lives of the rural and dulled. There is a tabloid quality to much of the writing--like country songs but without the humor: "Dull, brutal Leon," as Thon describes one character.

It is as if Thon's farmers in White Falls, Ida., stare at the dirt and miss the high, broad Idaho skies. There is no sense of the big picture. This is no "Thousand Acres"; this is a pair of muddy Size 12s. Despite her intrusive familiarity with her characters, Thon nonetheless seems to write down to them: "little box houses and dented trailers, vacant lots and dusty roads."

With her myopic focus on detail--the small, unpleasant detail--Thon's book ultimately becomes small-minded. A gifted, determined writer, Thon burrows into her subject like a beetle into a rose. No surprise we see the rot and dark at the center, but miss the beauty and the perfume.

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