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Slouching From Nebraska : SISTER, By Jim Lewis (Graywolf Press: $20; 205 pp.)

August 29, 1993|Anna Mundow | Anna Mundow is a free-lance writer and critic

In Jim Lewis' first novel there is something nasty at the bottom of the garden. It comes not from Hell, however, but from Nebraska and its name is Wilson. "Sister" is Wilson's account of his obsession with a garden, a family and a girl in that order.

Like any worthwhile confession this one begins innocently enough. "On my 17th birthday I left my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, and when out for a walk in the world.". But what follows is no picaresque jaunt. Wilson soon veers off the Midwestern blacktop into Southern undergrowth where portents and symbols flourish. Part alienated teen, part primal force, he attaches himself to the wealthy Miller family, first as gardener, then voyeur and ultimately as annihilator.

"It's true I'm a singular creature, a mooncalf, a monster if you will, equally knocked about and knocking," he reflects in a narrative that, at its best, attains the horrible clarity of delirium. Nebraska behind him, the wanderer is seduced first by a city on the Mississippi's banks "where profit has collected like silt from the river," then by the Miller estate where "the grounds were cast back behind the house with the ease and grandeur of a kept woman's blanket thrown lazily over her bed."

Like Heathcliff, Wilson peers in through the mansion's window on a luminously domestic scene that he simultaneously covets and loathes. Only the dullest reader could miss the warning signs of havoc ahead. "It was the entire cast, full stage and floodlit. I wasn't bored; I waited there and watched until one by one they shook their evening off and started upstairs to bed, leaving me to myself.". The Miller parents and two daughters don't know it yet but the grounds man has just taken over their lives.

And if this seems like an old story that's because it is. Here again is the drifter from the Plains sewing destruction in lush valleys, the loner repeatedly being asked, "Who are you?" We need to know too.

But that familiar brand of alienation is tricky as Lewis must convince us that Wilson is more than a stereotype. He attempts to do so by granting him spiritual as well a biographical depth. A third of the way through the novel he introduces the narrator's dead mother and distant father, but Christian symbolism dominates from the outset. Indeed, the novel's subtitle could be a quote from the Song of Solomon: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse."

Wilson finds both in his Eden but only after a wilderness sojourn and visitation by Jones, the Tramp/angel, who briefly accompanies him along the highway. "I was lying on my back and he came down to me suddenly, wrapped in a cloud of luminous mist amid which sheets of fire snapped in the wind, as if he were a refugee running from some imaginary superlunar war."

Even Mr. Miller, an otherwise plodding Southern lawyer, achieves biblical status when he casts Wilson out of the garden by burning down his hiding place. " . . . he left me nothing, and at last my fury descended upon me . . . like birds before their sharp beaks nip into flesh."

If all this isn't enough, "Sister" is also a distorted fairy tale that embraces masturbation, pornography, obscenity and unwanted pregnancy. Just as the vegetation reflects Wilson's mood, by turns bolting and withering, so Olivia Miller, youngest daughter and sequestered virgin, awakes to his kiss. "I was a mirage, a ghost shimmering in the headlights. 'Who are you?' she asked, not alarmed, curious. Her eyes opened wide and then dropped half closed again."

Clearly, Lewis needs a sturdy counterweight to such ascending dirigibles of dreamy symbolism. Periodically, if unevenly, he finds it in the American landscape and the heartbreaking banalities of family life.

He writes convincingly of Lincoln, Neb., for example: "Within a few blocks of the main street the houses fell down to two story frames as if on their knees before the sublime beauty of the Plains: there was so little substance to the whole . . . that if the University and the Capitol hadn't held it down like nails I think it would have become detached from the earth and floated silently up into the sky."

Or of Miller, distraught and abandoned: " . . . as I looked he pulled his hands from his face, slowly the way a child will pull a bandage from a skinned knee; as if he were afraid he would strip the skin from his features."

But at his worst Lewis describes Olivia moving "like a girl on holiday in her own prettiness," or gloom hanging "in patches in the air like morbid bunting." It is hard to forgive him for putting a spring in Wilson's step as he rolls across Texas under a noble blue sky cheered by chirruping birds.

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