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The Heart of Madness : HEADHUNTER, By Timothy Findley (Crown Publishers: $22.00; 440 pp.)

July 17, 1994|John Rechy | John Rechy's first novel, "City of Night," was reissued in hardback in May by Book of the Month Club. He has just completed his 11th novel, "Our Lady of Babylon."

This exceptional novel opens with a smashing paragraph that elevates a reader's expectations:

"On a winter's day, while a blizzard raged through the streets of Toronto, Lilah Kemp inadvertently set Kurtz free from Page 92 of 'Heart of Darkness.' Horror-stricken, she tried to force him back between the covers. The escape took place at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, where Lilah Kemp sat reading beside the rock pool. She had not even said come forth, but there Kurtz stood before her, framed by the woven jungle of cotton trees and vines that passed for botanic atmosphere."

Lilah is a schizophrenic, an outpatient in a psychiatric treatment center. She roams Toronto while pushing a baby carriage containing a copy of "Wuthering Heights." From childhood she has been able to conjure up characters from her favorite books. Now she believes she has unleashed the evil Kurtz of Joseph Conrad's famous novella onto the streets of Toronto, but Kurtz is not a figment of Lilah's imagination. He's the chief of Toronto's Parkin Institute of Psychiatry.

The prospect of Lilah as substitute Marlow (the pursuer of Conrad's Kurtz) tracking down a sinister psychiatrist is exciting indeed. Alas, Timothy Findley, celebrated Canadian author, opts for more literal parallels with Conrad's novella. Another psychiatrist--named Marlow!--arrives at the center, a forced development that Findley tries to shrug off: "It's just sort of crazy--the kind of coincidence that happens once in a lifetime." Perhaps because of their allegorical function, neither Kurtz nor Marlow is as engaging as Lilah--she is crafty, wickedly likable, expertly drawn but finally not involved as fully as anticipated in bringing Kurtz out of his new station of power.

Findley intends to locate a contemporary heart of darkness: "If there are new forms of human beings, then it follows there must be new forms of madness." In place of the river up which Conrad's Marlow trails his Kurtz, Findley substitutes the convoluted corridors of psychiatric power ruled, godlike, by a modern Kurtz. Findley's Marlow discovers that Kurtz is condoning behavioral experiments in the control of the young. Kurtz is aware of, and even visits, the Club of Men, a group of wealthy Canadians who perpetrate increasing debaucheries.

Another horror is loose in the city. As deadly as AIDS, a new illness, "sturnusemia," is being suspiciously attributed by the government to starlings. D-squads are annihilating birds and wasting the landscape.

Given these grim developments, it's surprising that Findley manages terrific satire along the way: Gallery-opening art-chat becomes uproarious during the unveiling of deranged paintings of mutilation. A "fable" within the novel purports to reveal how Jean-Paul Sartre really died. At a formal dinner, Sartre expounds: "We pay attention to one another in accordance with our functions in one another's lives. . . . I desire wine--I call the waiter. . . . And once my glass is filled, then--poof!--he is gone. The waiter no longer exists." The waiter opens fire and--poof--kills Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Findley makes a hilarious, satirically illuminating commentary on existentialism.

Throughout, impeccable sentences and sophisticated insights delight. At the art opening, Kurtz muses: "Nearly everyone in the room . . . has violence somewhere in the family background--the violence always on an operatic scale--Verdi, not Puccini. Never Wagner. Tasteful--but full-blown; a generation of weddings sung by tenors and sopranos--with all the dark basses and contraltos waiting in the wings . . . La Forza del destino."

Part of this novel's commercial success in Canada may result from its Canadian readers' familiarity with Toronto society. The uninitiated reader may find the book too long and become frustrated by its extended descriptions of city landscapes, its vast cast of glamorously named characters (Fabiana, Julian Slade), each of whom, major and minor, carries loads of unneeded background. There's too much fussy action: Cigarettes are lit and snuffed, olives recurrently fished out of martinis.

Literary allusions abound, some surely meaningful mainly to the author, others amusing: Emma Berry conducts romantic liaisons in her moving limousine; and Lilah names the invisible baby in her carriage Linton.

Findley does not finally fulfill his own high ambitions: "Every Kurtz must have his Marlow, and Marlow will always come back to take Kurtz home. . . . With every journey up the river, we discover that Kurtz has penetrated just a little farther . . . through darker mysteries."

What Findley locates is more a unique perversion than the universal evil he has promised to explore, mysteries "darker" than Conrad's. The depravity here is too specific to stand as metaphor for the mysteries posed by real, near-ungraspable horrors that have occurred since the original Kurtz appeared: the Holocaust, the slaughter at My Lai, the lingering indifference to AIDS--much more brutal than the sturnusemia Findley imagines--the emergence of "ethnic cleansing," the hundreds of acts of daily brutalities.

Asking why Marlow always appears in order to pursue Kurtz, Findley proposes: " . . . because he is beholden to Kurtz for having provided him, after darkness, with a way to find new light." Findley does not contribute such "new light" of possible redemption. The relative hopefulness of his ending seems imposed. Despite the fact that his novel succeeds only partially, Findley deserves high praise for his daring to explore grand themes, and to do so in fine, literate writing.

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