The Tree House Confessions
by James McConkey
Dutton, 214 pp., $8.95
by Stephen Minot
Harper & Row, 272 pp., $9.95
Let the Lion Eat Straw
by Ellease Southerland
Scribner’s, 181 pp., $7.95
These three novels have been out for several months now and all have received some attention—in two cases very little. None is a “big” novel, none is by a “name” author (though James McConkey certainly has a following among fellow writers and discerning readers), and none seems destined to make much money. All three concentrate, somewhat unfashionably, upon the intensities of domestic life—upon the struggle of well-intentioned people to draw breath for themselves within its confines, upon the curious repetitions and reversals that occur as one generation flows into the next. All three are good novels, with sufficient intensity of vision and stylistic distinction to warrant another look before they are forgotten in the onrush of new titles this fall.
In James McConkey’s The Tree House Confessions the difficulty of drawing breath is made literal: its protagonist, Peter Warden, suffers sporadically from asthma, which is not only an affliction but a resource—something to “fall back on” as his first marriage begins to collapse within weeks of its consummation. Neurasthenic in other respects, delicately attuned to the feelings of his lonely and dignified mother, Peter at the age of fifty undergoes a visionary experience while he is holding the callused hand of his dying mother—an ecstatic experience of the void that confers a fleeting sense of freedom from all constraints—from grief, from memory, from time, from life itself.
Though blissful, this revelation leads to a breakdown of sorts, causing Peter to detach himself from his work on the rural newspaper that he edits and to withdraw from intimacy with his second wife, Ann, to whom he has been happily married for many years. He finds refuge in a tree house he had built for his son Tommy not long before the boy was killed in Vancouver by a runaway truck. There, in the leafy heights, he meditates upon the implications of his experience, relating it to his earliest awareness of nature, to the lives of his parents, his two marriages, and to his guilt and grief over the loss of Tommy. The novel itself is an extended love letter and explanation to Ann—an episodic recherche du temps perdu that he hopes will enable him to create a bridge between the ecstatic glimpse of ultimate freedom and the need to be in the world, to love his wife “here and now,” to be “real” enough to meet her reality. Peter in short confronts the perennial dilemma of mystics: how to reconcile the transcendent, the silent, the timeless, and the empty with all that is busy, noisy, temporal, and crowded.
There is little plot, no real suspense, few surprises. The major events in the life of Peter and his family are announced early in the novel, which then circles and recircles around them. We learn of his parents’ courtship and their life together on an island in Lake Erie where his father successfully practices viticulture and where Peter is born and spends his childhood. We learn …