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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Two Novellas That Pass the Test of Time : TWO FOR THE ROAD b y Wright Morris , Black Sparrow Press, Hardcover, $25, Paperback, $15, 304 pages

March 06, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Black Sparrow has reissued a pair of Wright Morris' short novels--"Man and Boy," first published in 1951, and "In Orbit," which originally appeared in 1967. Though they could hardly be more different from each other, together they're a splendid introduction to a varied and distinguished literary career that includes essays, short stories, memoirs, books of "photo-text" and 20 novels.

"Man and Boy" tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Ormsby on a pivotal day in their circumscribed lives. They are about to leave their home in the Philadelphia suburbs to christen a destroyer escort named the Virgil Ormsby in honor of their son, killed in the World War II battle of Guadalcanal. For this particular couple, the train journey from Philadelphia to New York is anything but routine. Mrs. Violet Ames Ormsby is a terror, and the person most terrorized by her is her meek and obedient husband, Warren. He calls her Mother; not merely a clue to their relationship but the complete definition of the marriage. Bit by bit, Warren Ormsby's personality and character has been subsumed by his demanding and autocratic wife, who has turned her husband into a sort of all-purpose household appliance. He follows her orders automatically and caters to her every irrational whim.

Mother Ormsby had long since abandoned all domestic responsibility in order to devote herself entirely to the welfare of birds and the preservation of their natural habitats. Forty years ago, before ecologists and environmentalists had united to become a powerful political force, Mrs. Ormsby was virtually the entire movement. The phrase endangered species was not yet a part of the language, and anyone who put the interests of the purple grackle ahead of the needs of the American economy was bound to be considered somewhat eccentric.

Still, even if she couldn't have distinguished a purple grackle from a Canada goose, even if she had rejoiced to see a shopping mall rise on the wetlands, Violet Ames Ormsby would have stood out in a crowd. For one thing, she communicates with the long-suffering Warren almost entirely in writing. Days, even weeks, go by without the pair exchanging a word. Warren gets his instructions in the form of terse notes posted all over the house. That way, he has no excuse for failing to take out the garbage or empty the drip pan under the icebox. Though Warren is actually in the business of selling refrigerators, Mother has not allowed him to bring one home. Warren himself is her modern convenience. "It was not that Mother was old-fashioned--no, nothing like that--it was just that she refused to buy anything but the best. And after Pearl Harbor it was all out of the question--for a woman like Mother--so the icebox pan would have to be remembered for several more years."

Despite her insistence upon being called Mother, Mrs. Ormsby hadn't been a particularly maternal figure. One of Warren's most poignant memories is of his son sleeping on the newspaper-covered sofa because the boy's clothes might soil the furniture and his shoes track mud upstairs.

Young Virgil was called "the boy" and never allowed to interfere with his mother's more pressing concerns. When he permits himself to think of the matter at all, Warren Ormsby thinks this attitude may have had something to do with the boy's leaving home to enlist in the Navy, though he tries valiantly to put any such disloyal thought out of his mind. Still, there are strong hints that Mother prefers the S.S. Virgil Ormsby, conveniently berthed in the Navy Yard, to the disruptive presence of the ship's namesake himself.

"In Orbit" is a day in the life of a young sociopath who steals a motorbike and embarks on a course of mindless violence that includes virtually every form of viciousness. Written nearly 20 years ago when the term juvenile delinquent was still current, "In Orbit" is amazingly prescient. Yesterday's startling novella has become today's routine news story.

"Is it possible that knavery, thievery, larceny, batter and lechery come naturally to Jubal? How else? It is the only talent he has." In the course of his rampage, Jubal gets through the entire list, wreaking havoc wherever he goes and leaving the lives of several memorable characters permanently altered. Ironic and supremely economical, the novella offers as much insight into the mind of a totally disaffected youth as a dozen recent full-scale sociological studies.

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