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Water, Water Everywhere : Keeping afloat in a dysfunctional family : OPEN WATER, By Maria Flook (Pantheon: $24; 336 pp.)

March 26, 1995|Wendy Dozoretz | Dozoretz, an independent movie producer, who produced Deceived and Other Women's Children, is currently at work on two projects at Disney

Everybody talks about the dysfunctional family. It's a given in our society that many, if not all, families are dysfunctional. People are nonchalant about it already, cynical perhaps. Novelist Maria Flook's specialty is the post-dysfunctional family, those ties that form when our blood ties, our nuclear families, fail us.

In her debut novel, "Family Night," Flook told the story of a man's deeply unsatisfying quest for his real father, who turns out to be a cold, heartless crook. In "Open Water," her compelling second novel, most of the parents are dead and gone, and in the one mother/son relationship that does exist, the son is a callous, unmerciful guy whose main goal is to put his dying mother in a nursing home. So much for happy, conventional families.

"Open Water" is more mature than "Family Night," perhaps because Flook has abandoned traditional family relationships in favor of a modern "family" in which people actually care deeply for one another. The story, a delicious black comedy, is set in a fringe community--the working class of tony Newport, R.I.--and all of the characters, except the biological son Munro, are marginal at best. Willis Pratt is discharged from the Navy because of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which the Navy psychiatrist attributed to the violent deaths of both his parents. When Willis can't find his photograph of his natural mother the day he is leaving the base, he suspects it is a prank. Beyond frustration, he smashes his arm against a concrete post, which shatters his wrist into innumerable, excruciatingly painful pieces. He goes home to recuperate with his stepmother, Rennie, who offers him the morphine she has on hand to combat the torment of her terminal cancer. Willis starts to pop morphine like candy.

Another of society's cast-offs, Holly Temple, moves in next door. Furious with her husband for leaving her for another woman, Holly places burning coals in his bed and finds herself on probation for arson.

Willis, Rennie and Holly form a family of sorts, with the eccentric Rennie as its matriarch. Thrice widowed (the first two at sea), Rennie has earned the distinguished title "Kiss of Death" from the local New England gossips. Although she stays mostly in the background, Rennie's situation motivates much of the action. She pulls the strings for Willis and Holly. Making sure Rennie dies comfortably at home and is buried at sea with her first husband becomes Willis' mission in life, and he enlists Holly in this endeavor by the end. This would seem a rather noble task on the surface, but Willis has to get money to accomplish it, which forces him to hook up with a low-life named Fritz, who leads Willis to a 3-D pornography operation, and ultimately to larceny and blackmail. Holly and Willis bond in a hysterically funny sequence that starts with a madcap effort to kidnap Rennie from a sanitarium and culminates with their being chased by Coast Guard boats while attempting to dump Rennie's body at sea. Anything for family, according to the skewed ethos of "Open Water."

Flook clearly loves these bizarre characters. Her exquisite, poetic writing makes this emphatic. She wrote two collections of poetry, "Sea Room" and "Reckless Wedding," before becoming a novelist, and her remarkable facility with language is evident on every page. She starts the book with a series of declarative sentences that simply describe Willis and his current plight. Then, to portray the agony his splintered wrist causes him, she writes: "Pain migrated from its formal nucleus and wormed in all directions, into icy spinal ravines and flash fires of its thermal dimension. His pulse mimicked the trouble spot in the jelly of his retina." By using such potent, piercing imagery, she mainlines the reader into her cracked characters and makes us love them too.

In Flook's writing, the water is a recurrent and insistent motif. Her poetry abounds with images of raindrops, lakes, seas, oceans, in addition to whole poems devoted to these topics. In her novel "Family Night," the two primary locations are seaside cities, Wilmington and Providence, and there are many scenes and memories of events that take place on the beach, in a boat, in a pool or in the ocean. In "Open Water," Rennie's turn-of-the-century house overlooks the water, and much of her time is spent looking out to sea, watching the ships come and go. Willis is recuperating in his childhood bedroom on the third floor, which has the best view in the house.

As the spectacular Joel Meyerowitz cover photograph of the ocean conveys before you even open the book, this is a story of people surrounded by the calm of the sea. Yet the image is put on its side, literally and metaphorically: Just as she bypasses the rich to tell her story of Newport, Flook invents new kinds of families and new ways of surviving, encompassed by the amniotic fluid of the ocean.

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