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Connect, Only Connect : THE LAW OF ENCLOSURES, By Dale Peck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $23; 306 pp.)

February 04, 1996|RICHARD EDER

'The Word is our promise of ultimate Peace," wrote the Spanish philosopher and poet Miguel de Unamuno. Dale Peck, a fiercely lyrical American writer, holds to the word with equal fervor. For him too it is a promise of peace--a peace that lies barely alive at the far end of the terrible destruction of AIDS. His powerful novel "Martin and John"--a series of variations on gay love and pain--uses words as candles. Not to lighten the darkness, quite the contrary: to disclose it. Yet the candles flicker in their own right: We remember them.

Words are the theme in the climactic passage of Peck's much more scattered and elusive "The Law of Enclosures." In the middle of his new novel about the love and pain of a stormy 40-year marriage, Peck inserts an interlude in which he directly addresses his own parents. He speaks to his dead mother with love and sorrow, but she doesn't really seem to interest him. It is his father whose attention he demands. In anger and longing, he tells this violent and glittering man:

"Your gifts are fists and curses, your punishments kisses and caresses"--Peck writes with a defiance that is at once contorted and luminous--"and I have grown bitter with your love and sweet with your hatred. You are my god, my father, but I am your bible: I turn your flesh into words, and words have always outlasted the gods who fathered them. I have built you up and I have torn you down, and I can do either again, or neither, or both. Words are my wrenches, words my hammer and nails. Words are my fists, my liquor, my food, and words are my women. With my words I will protect you. I will save you as you have saved me. I save you forever, and for everyone, and for eternity. Dear father, I am saving you now."

It is a bitter anger and a jealous love. For Peck, a gay son's passion is neither to kill nor replace the father but violently to engender him. And his tool--if I am permitted an unfrivolous double-meaning--is words.

Nothing else in the novel has such intensity or cohesiveness. The long marriage of Henry and Beatrice is recounted in oddly assorted ways and styles, each resembling a different attempt to break into an inaccessible building. They are the parents of John, one of the gay characters in Peck's previous novel and in some respects his alter ego. Here, John only appears once and not in person but as three nude drawings he has done of his parents and himself. Yet in the fragmented story of Henry and Beatrice we sense an orbital displacement, as if an invisible planet were tugging upon two visible ones.

Their meeting and courtship are told almost as a myth; even the sex is conveyed in chill, quasi-magical terms. At college, Beatrice is entranced by a thin, ill-looking fellow student who, she is told, is gay and dying of AIDS. (Perhaps the AIDS reference accounts for an awkward chronology; the story begins at the time of the Gulf War and runs on into the 2030s.) But Henry is not gay; his illness is a brain tumor that will kill him unless he has an operation that itself is likely to be fatal.

It is his illness and near-certain death that draw Beatrice to him. Peck evokes Henry's feebleness and the horror that he inspires in himself and others, as if his illness were, in fact, AIDS; as if he, a heterosexual, were living out in advance the beautiful-and-damned life of his gay son in "Martin and John."

The tone of the book changes drastically after Henry's operation is unexpectedly successful and he marries Beatrice. Suddenly they are Hank and Bea; no longer doomed and poetic, but two down-to-earth proletarians scrimping to get by in a flimsy house on Long Island. He works for his uncle, a wealthy plumbing contractor, and she works checkout at a supermarket.

Their sex becomes fleshy and urgent, he stays out late drinking with the boys, she drinks at home and throws his uneaten dinner into the backyard. Over the years, their quarrels turn increasingly savage; both sleep around. Even their speech goes blue-collar. "It's no secret that Bea and me ain't been getting along too good, lately," Henry tells a friend.

The tone changes once more in the third part of their story. (The three parts are intercut with each other, increasing our sense of splinteriness.) Now Hank and Bea are in their 60s, prosperous, still together, still shrill with mutual loathing. They drive to visit a friend dying of brain cancer--coincidence or obscure symbol?--in upstate New York. Bit by bit another magic sets in, instilled by the majestic landscape and, perhaps, by their sudden quixotic decision to stay with their friend's widow and build a house.

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