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Days of Thunder

ALMOST HEAVEN.\o7 By Marianne Wiggins (Crown: 214 pp., $23)\f7

September 20, 1998|GLORIA EMERSON | Gloria Emerson is the author of several books, including "Winners & Losers," an account of the Vietnam War that won a National Book Award

In "Almost Heaven," her fifth novel--ferocious, often frightening, licentious and slightly weird--Marianne Wiggins creates a wrecked foreign correspondent fresh out of Bosnia after witnessing the carnage and a beautiful woman, Melanie, old enough to be his mother, who suffers from "hysterical amnesia." (Isn't there a new name for this condition?) She saw her husband and four young sons killed inside their car during a tornado. Now she does not remember they even existed.

Holden, the correspondent, takes her out of the psychiatric institution where they fell in love to deliver her to her brother, Noah, the only person she talks about. The brother, Holden's friend and his old professional mentor, cannot leave South Dakota, where he lives, to visit Melanie because of a situation there with a woman. All we are told is that Noah disappeared to be with her. "Rode some wild high thunder till the chaos tossed him under," Wiggins writes.

There is a lot of that thunder in "Almost Heaven," for Wiggins is not one of those lacy, literary writers who favors lovely language. She is powerful and original, wanting her readers to go into shock right away.

Since Holden has never been in love and is now, he wants to save the woman and is warned by Dr. Alexander Graham, a neuropsychiatrist in Richmond, Va., of the dreadful consequences of taking her away. Graham says to him, "I'm telling you right now that when she blows, and we both know she's going to, she is going to blow with so much force that it might destroy not only her but also anyone and anything around her." Blow? Well, maybe in the South, which Wiggins writes about so wonderfully, a psychiatrist would use this verb.

Holden buys a van in which the couple live as they search for Noah and becomes Melanie's ceaseless caretaker. A perfect physical union gives Holden hope: If she could help him forget, he would help her to remember. He sees her kind of amnesia as: "A self-inflicted death. In order to survive." Graham's theory is what intrigues Holden, is "the sexiness of her condition, her non-being, her nullity." There is an erotic charge in his Samaritanism, the doctor says. Indeed.

She is Holden's Lost Cause, this doomed woman who writes backward in the air and draws letters on his skin. Graham speculates that she is writing out her children's histories. But Holden is not entirely convincing as the tortured foreign correspondent (I've known quite a few who covered Bosnia and were deeply sickened but not ruined) and he becomes the martyr. Perhaps he knew he would be all along.

It is in Kentucky, inside the monolith commemorating the birthplace of Jefferson Davis--the first and only president of the Confederacy, America's greatest Lost Cause--that the end comes. It is as terrible and upsetting as Wiggins intended it to be.

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