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Searching for Order : CONSIDER THIS HOME, By Greg Bills (Simon & Schuster: $21; cloth; 318 pp.)

May 08, 1994|Antonya Nelson | Antonya Nelson's most recent book is the collection of short stories, "Family Terrorists" (Houghton Mifflin). She is a professor of literature and creative writing at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces

Greg Bills' first novel, "Consider This Home," uses as its epigraph a line from the Talking Heads' song "This Must Be The Place." The line Bills doesn't use, from the same song, is the one that creates the bridge--a powerful and ironic one--between this novel and the Book of Mormon. David Byrne's lyrics posit a "guess that this must be the place," where Brigham Young once declared with assurance, "This is the place." It's the uncertainty of Byrne's qualifiers that gives rise to Bills' novel, an uncertainty that extends to include us and to distinguish us from our ancestors.

In alternating point-of-view sections, the author tells the story of young Daron, the product of a teen-age coupling, and his mother, Kath. Daron's central objective is to discover who his father is; Kath's desires are more nebulous. She is teetering on the fence of her Mormon faith, her ambivalence about it clear in some ways, very unclear in others. Ostensibly, she has fallen: fleeing her family and church, living in Las Vegas, drinking coffee. But her upbringing exerts itself in mysterious ways, ways Bills will not let Kath easily dismiss. The author understands the deep-seated emotional hold childhood experience has on adults; he never condescends to trivialize it.

The book begins with a journey home, mother and son on the road traveling toward their respective fathers. Travel is frequently evoked in "Consider This Home," whether characters are questing for a new home or escaping the old (they are often doing both). In the way Brigham Young searched for confidence that he'd found "the place," Greg Bills' characters also look for signs that they've found home. But they cannot claim the same God-sent guarantees and are more tentative in their declaration of homeland or home. They are grappling with life's central enigmatic dilemmas--birth, sex and death--without coming to any firmer conclusions than the rest of us. History--their own and the ancestral--haunts them; the visions of childhood do not subside. Their true lives take place in the imaginative and the literal, in the sightings of angels in trees and in the construction of tiny rooms in their hearts where they seek shelter. It is an anguishing moment when Kath realizes, about her son, she "can no longer tell what Daron is feeling and she worries about him, alone inside his head."

Daron is an important point-of-view character because he illustrates for the reader the integrity of children's feelings. One can relive his parents' youthful personalities by comparing them to Daron's. And one can feel hopeful that Daron's life, as it continues forward, will be one salvaged from the ruins, that the legacy of terrors will end.

Daron is also a good guide. As he navigates Mormonism, the reader is invited into the religion in incremental measure, oftentimes horrified, other times amused. Add Greg Bills to the growing cadre of writers presenting humanized Mormonism to those of us untutored in its nuances.

The author is interested in other conjured worlds besides Mormonism--the one of Las Vegas, the one of television. The western landscape is as much a character in this book as anyone else, and its two-sided nature couldn't be more clear than in these polar settings of Sterling, Utah and Las Vegas, Nev.: small-town religious repression versus Sin City, U.S.A. The natural world is lovingly rendered, both the secular and the non-secular landscapes.

The weakness of this book is that its plot depends upon a demon and a long-held secret about him, elements that take the novel one step away from realism and two steps closer to melodrama. That evil people inhabit the earth few of us would dispute; whether this novel requires a satanic character is the issue. And though some secrets are explicably and necessarily kept in this book, the one Kath keeps seems more convenient than convincing. Since Bills has so beautifully served Kath and Daron to the reader, has so beautifully suggested the menace of a repressive upbringing, it seems unnecessary to deliver the apocalyptic crisis. The author has played evenhandedly with his characters up to this point, asking the reader to judge them rather than doing so himself, but then tilts the scale, thereby undoubtedly losing the very readers he should be seeking to persuade.

This reservation aside--it's a relatively minor one--the reason you should read "Consider This Home" is that it's so well written. Bills' language offers moment-by-moment delight, and 10-year-old Daron is one of the most memorable consciousnesses I've had the pleasure to inhabit in recent fiction. You couldn't ask for a guide with more integrity or astuteness of vision. His struggle to create order and story out of his disordered, narrative-resistant life is utterly heart-rending. He is Greg Bills' great gift to readers.

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