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Stories of Fathers and Children : He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not : EVER AFTER: A Father's True Story, By William Wharton (Newmarket Press: $22.95; 246 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Benjamin Cheever | Benjamin Cheever edited "The Letters of John Cheever." His most recent novel, "The Partisan" was published Atheneum in 1994

Terror of death is one of the few remaining givens in human character. For parents this constant is overridden by an even greater horror, the fear that your children will die before you do. Novelist William Wharton has had this nightmare come true. In August of 1988 there was a massive pileup on Highway 5 in Oregon. Twenty-two vehicles were involved, seven people died; four of them were related to the writer. One was Wharton's daughter, Kate. Her husband and two babies were also killed and burned. The marriage was ideal, the lives destroyed full of joy and promise. These deaths seemed particularly senseless. Nobody was drunk, or even driving badly. Heavy smoke from a field burning rolled across the highway; suddenly nobody could see.

"Ever After" is Wharton's portrait of his beloved child, his heartbreak. The book goes on to outline the legal struggle in which its author became embroiled afterward in an attempt to stop the fires set regularly by the farmers who produce grass seed. These burn-offs not only pollute the air but have also caused other accidents.

In a novel, such a legal struggle might conclude in triumph, and up until now Wharton has written only novels. His first, "Birdy" (1978) won an American Book Award. There have been six since then. "Birdy," "Dad" and "A Midnight Clear" were made into movies. But here he's turned his back on fictional techniques.

Nor is this a memoir, exactly. "As a result of the experience described in this work," Wharton writes in his foreword, "I have come to the conclusion that everything coming through the mind of man or woman is fiction. So-called truth is a convenience and a comfort for which we all search. This search seems natural and necessary to humans."

"In science, observations are established as truth by replication. A concept or observation is considered true when numerous repetitions of the same concepts, observations and conclusions have been completed and verified.

"However, for a long time, scientific man was convinced the sun went around the earth. This phenomenon fulfilled all the requirements for truth in its day."

Wharton is trying to make his own science. But in so doing he uses the least scientific of methods.

The first section of the book is written in the voice of his daughter, Kate. "There are conversations I did not hear, for example, between my daughter and her husband, which I create," he explains.

So why should we believe any of this? Because we have faith in the writer, and because it is so clear that in this case life is not being let into predictable channels. While Wharton is an accomplished storyteller, this is not a story. Whenever the narrative does begin to take off, he snaps its back. This is not a novel, not even a memoir, this is a sort of prose documentary.

For those of us who loved the fiction, that's at first a disappointment. Despite the recent fever of interest in the biographies of writers, most writers, like most other people, have led relatively boring lives. We don't know this, because a skilled novelist never puts down exactly what happened. What happened is rarely a good story. Besides which, what happened doesn't make sense.

But Wharton doesn't want to make sense. He's out for bigger game. "I do not expect, or ask belief from you, the reader, in the unique revelation with which I was blessed," he writes in the foreword.

And there are hints, throughout, as to his destination. The first section, which is in Kate's voice, is written in the timeless present, as if the dead woman were talking to us now. Remarking on the success of her second marriage, she tells her father, "Well, now I know I don't have to die to go to heaven." Then in a one-line paragraph that made me sit up, she adds, as if in an aside, "But I did."

The events of this woman's life unfold, quietly, until she reports herself killed. "Then, there's a terrible crunch, an unbelievable noise, the incredible shock of the jolt from behind. Look back for the babies and hear them cry."

When the next chapter opens, Wharton and his son, are returning on bicycles to a house on the Jersey shore. The attention to detail is painstaking. Wharton's wife, comes out to him from the kitchen. "I'm just stepping over the small sill into the porch when she comes quickly down the steps to me. It's enough out of the ordinary that I take notice. I see she's crying."

Now I was not aware of having developed any terrific attachment to Kate during the first five chapters of the book. She seemed a decent, attractive young woman. Not Mother Theresa, or Marilyn Monroe. But when Wharton hears she's dead, I burst into tears. And I don't cry easily. I sobbed so noisily that the family dog got upset herself, climbed into bed with me and began to lick my face. I don't know how it had happened, but this ordinary woman had become as real to me as is most anything else in my ordinary life.

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