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Moral Antarctica : FICTION : THE END OF ALICE, By A.M. Homes (Scribner's: $22; 270 pp.)

May 26, 1996|Elizabeth Houghton | Elizabeth Houghton is a writer who lives in New York

Feeling snug as a bug in a rug? Beware, gentle reader, the soothing aspects of life as we know it are about to be profoundly disturbed. Crack the back of "The End of Alice" and a visceral nerve will be laid open, exposed for the quick pen of A.M. Homes to tease out of its mind. With all the cunning and control of a brilliant lover, she takes us to places we dare not go alone. Once there, we are haunted by our willing participation. There are lines we do not cross, things we do not speak about. We have boundaries, right?

From on high it looks so orderly, a world defined by grids of lush green. Move in and you will meet nice people in tennis whites who set their clocks by the swish of the sprinklers and the jingle of the Good Humor man. Get a little closer and you will hear the silent cry of confusion, a wild thing tamed to perform on command.

"The girl. She is home for the summer, returned to her people after sophomore year at a prominent girls' college, whose name I will keep secret, to spare the institution the embarrassment or perhaps the pride, depending on which of the trustees you might ask. And while one can recognize the benefits of a single-sex education, the high pursuits of the few remaining colleges, one rarely discusses the drawbacks, the demand that the body suspend its development, its inclinations, while the intellect is encouraged to grow."

She too is not named, lest she be you or me. (Anonymity plays a powerful role in this book, it keeps us looking over our shoulders, questioning what we think we know.) Her mind has been exercised, her body starved. She is the baby-sitter, the tennis instructor, but her packaging does not come with a much-needed warning. Her craving for a 12-year-old boy will be hazardous to her health. Her secret can only be safe with someone already under lock and key.

He is a notorious pedophile serving a life sentence in maximum security, a dutiful correspondent to the enraged and depraved, the pen pal of choice for a nihilistic 19-year-old in need of a confidante cum mentor. She makes the first move. He takes the bait. "What drew me to this particular offering, this large flat envelope--I find significance in the page not folded, the document of such value that it not be tampered with, altered to fit through the thin slot of a mailbox, that its contents are of such import that they need be taken by hand to the postmaster and left in his care for quickest delivery--what interested me about this well-typed tome was the willingness of its author to transcend, to flirt, outside her chosen category or group."

She vamps as a seductress with all the angst and bluster of an only daughter on the verge of coming into her own, whipping through her mother's closet in search of the dress that is going to fit her just right. It is kind of sexy, kind of silly. You can almost see her girlish pride: "One of my reasons for writing--and there are lots!--is to let you have a look at my life. I thought you might be curious to see what someone like me is really like. I'm crazy to learn more about your life and hope you will tell me all about prison. It sounds very exciting. Do you make license plates?"

Then it gets serious. A calm comes over her, she adopts an air of cool that sends shivers down our spines. She gets her boy all right, but then his father gets her, and it's hard, fast and cruel, leaving her numb. The playful spirit she exuded at the start is trashed, a childhood toy left raggedy, its stuffings pummeled. What kind of world do we live in that this can happen? Is it all their fault, the parents? "Do you even have a clue? I doubt you realize it, but your influence is everywhere. And it's not only me, it's all the mothers and all the girls. Everyone is afraid." He, however, is safely behind bars.

At a distance, off-limits, he was so amusing or so she thought. So did Alice, the girl her letters inspire him to remember, the reason he is here: "Alice; naked by the lake is how she found me. She is there on the beach, standing between me and my clothing. I turn away overcome by false modesty. She watches. She wears war paint and carries a bow and a quiver filled with white arrows ending in blue suction cups. She giggles. She points to my shriveled self hanging down below.

"She finds me amusing.

"Her amusement I find humiliating, arousing.

"I instantly want to do something--to silence that stupid giggling.

"Alice collapses, beside herself with glee."

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