by David Plante
Atheneum, 123 pp., $8.95
A Midnight Clear
by William Wharton
Knopf, 242 pp., $12.95
Shiloh and Other Stories
by Bobbie Ann Mason
Harper and Row, 247 pp., $12.95
A literary typologist would probably want to classify the Novel of the Sensitive Youth as a minor subdivision of the Bildungsroman—less ambitious, less philosophical, and much shorter. Though perennial, it probably reached its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s when a spate of such works appeared in this country—small, carefully wrought novels about teen-age boys or young men standing hesitantly on the threshold of adult life, full of inchoate yearnings, often troubled about their sexual identity, painfully aware of a great gap separating them from their better-adjusted, thicker-skinned peers, for whom they often felt a kind of hopeless love. William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf is perhaps the best known of the group and certainly one of the best. Now David Plante’s The Woods provides evidence that the genre still lives, its tremulous sensitivity intact.
Though it is the third in the series of novels dealing with the Francoeurs, a working-class family of French Canadians settled in Providence, Rhode Island, The Woods is second in chronology, taking place in 1957-1958, four years after the period treated in The Family (1979) and a dozen or so years before the events so movingly narrated in The Country (1981). It is also the shortest and most fragile. Once again the protagonist is the next to youngest of the seven Francoeur sons, Daniel, who, when the book opens, is completing his freshman year at a Catholic institution easily identifiable as Boston College. As he had been in The Family, Daniel is much preoccupied with his body, which he sees only as an assemblage of discrete parts, not as a functioning entity. He is also preoccupied with the body of Charlie Chatellerault, his extroverted roommate, whom he contemplates as Charlie sleeps or takes a shower. “It seemed to Daniel that behind Charlie’s body was a space, a large deep space, and, looking at Charlie’s body, he was looking at that stunning space.” The psychology underlying these musings about bodies and the mysterious space beyond bodies is obscure; there seems to be some connection to a masturbatory fantasy involving the body of the crucified Jesus which Daniel experiences at the age of fourteen in The Family.
Nothing much happens. Daniel and Charlie go to a dance, which Daniel does not enjoy. They go into Boston with a third college friend, and while they are at the Museum of Fine Arts, Charlie goes off with a girl. Daniel is aimless, lost, full of nameless longing. Charlie would like to make love with a girl, something he has never done; neither has Daniel.
The second part of the novel takes place at the lake in northern Rhode Island where Daniel’s parents have a house. There is much mooning about the house and lake. An enigmatic young woman named Lillian Cooper tries to draw Daniel out of the mental woods which he inhabits. They swim together nude one night and on a later occasion make love in the woods—neither of which activities …