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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : When Big Problems Hit Families--Hey, That's Just Life : OPAL ON DRY GROUND by Sandra Scofield ; Villard $20, 279 pages

August 09, 1994|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Read Sandra Scofield's latest novel, "Opal on Dry Ground," for its own merits--for a hardscrabble beauty, which, like the beauty of west Texas where the story is set, isn't always obvious and takes some patience to appreciate.

Then, to better understand what Scofield has done, try this: Once you finish reading, imagine what Joyce Carol Oates would have done with the same material.

In Russell Duffy's four-bedroom house in Lubbock live Russell, an oil-pipeline worker with a penchant for taking off to Africa for months at a time, and his new wife, Opal, a health-care worker in her late 50s who is getting fat and suffers from heart trouble.

Moving in with them are Opal's daughters, Clancy and Joy. Each, like their mother, has two divorces on her resume. Clancy, chronically depressed, suspects that her husbands left out of boredom. Reckless Joy picked mean, controlling husbands who beat her. Neither has enough education to get a high-paying job.

Joy's teen-age daughter, Heather, is torn between her warring parents, lonely at school, sullen at home. She is drawn to a fellow outcast, a mixed-race girl named Jamaica, and to guys who drink beer, smoke pot and ride Harleys. As for the older women in her family, Heather "doesn't see how you can live whole lives as bad as theirs."

Opal's mother, Greta, recently died during a flood. Her children's woes, plus the question of how much she should commit to Russell--who is kind and reliable but a little obtuse--distract Opal from her own emotional needs.

"It's always been more important to be a mother than a wife," she muses in Scofield's rapid prose. "When Greta was alive, it was more important to be a daughter." But what now?

Other people pass in and out of the house: Russell's senile father and distant children, Opal's former mother-in-law, Clancy's and Joy's new boyfriends. The boyfriends seem OK, but both are auditioning for the Male Savior role that neither woman even wants to believe in anymore. Finally, there's the baby Clancy insists on bearing out of wedlock.

Enough? With a list of dysfunctions this long, Oates would have no trouble surrounding this family with her trademark aura of alienation and menace. Scofield, however, clearly chooses not to do so--and when we recall her previous work, especially the American Book Award-winning "Beyond Deserving," we see that this has always been her choice.

Human problems, Scofield seems to say, are simply that: problems. They don't necessarily mask even worse problems. Nor can they always, or even often, be solved. Problems are life, not just occasions for therapy. If things happen to get better, that's life, too.

Sometimes Scofield is explicit about this. Clancy wishes a doctor would give her antidepressants without having "ideas about treating the whole person." Opal thinks: "Clancy's husbands seemed to be challenged by her sad demeanor; they didn't realize it wasn't something she could toss off like a discarded blouse."

Russell, Opal reflects, "knows that in the construction of your life's plot, you narrow the options with age and error, and he wants to make the best of what he's got. Maybe he's right. Maybe what you've got is out of your control; all you can affect is who you are."

Usually, though, any messages are implicit in the action. What's new about this novel isn't so much its theme but Scofield's growing assurance. She knows more clearly than before what she wants to say, and she says it with a terse and graceful economy.

As in "Beyond Deserving," Scofield sees into the minds of both old and young. Crowded scenes flow by as naturally as if she had turned on a video camera. Emotions well up without sentimentality; the dialogue is authentic and funny without a trace of stock Texas "color."

In the end--well, life goes on, and no more than that. Scofield, much like Susan Straight, refuses to give us melodrama. Opal and her daughters ride off into the future, which could be sad or happy in any conceivable mixture. The novel gambles that this very uncertainty will bring a catch to our throats; because we care enough about the characters, it does.

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