Both these novels by established writers are about people undergoing crises of conscience in circumstances of modern political and social turmoil. Young Cal Mc Crystal, the unemployed Belfast laborer of Cal, has done driving jobs for IRA hit men and feels directly implicated in the murder of a Protestant farmer named Morton at his own house door and in the grievous wounding of Morton’s elderly father. He wants to get free of the violent men and somehow make a proper acknowledgment and full expiation of his guilt, but his problem becomes much more perplexing when, through a fairly believable concatenation of events, he finds work at the Morton farm and falls painfully in love with the murdered man’s widow, the Roman Catholic Marcella.
The irony puts us in mind of the Russian student Razumov in Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. After betraying his fellow student, Victor Haldin, to the czarist police, Razumov was forced by the Russian authorities to spy on revolutionary circles in Geneva. There he met and fell tormentedly in love with Haldin’s sister. Cal is quiet and small, not given to the moody acting out, including fits of manic laughter, of the Russian. Yet they are brothers just the same and are cut to the same or a similar thematic pattern. In a formula, the crisis of modern politics and society, broadly speaking, creates the crisis of conscience each character must work through, but provides no clues to the work of expiation each must perform if he is to find his way back to the human community. These woefully isolated and lonely characters come under added pressure as ironies of circumstance bring them into intimacy with the trustful relatives of their victims. For a brief time Cal actually becomes physically the lover of Marcella. Not unexpectedly, their lovemaking, from the boy’s conscience-stricken standpoint, is a painful joy.
The mark of Under Western Eyes is on The Summoning too, if only in the apparitional reappearance of a long-deceased victim to summon a character to begin the effort of moral recognition and repentance. But despite the plot ingenuities and many studied effects of this book, it is somewhat inferior to Cal in moral seriousness. Mr. Towers’s main problem is with his hero, Larry Hux, a divorced foundation executive of North Carolina origin, living—I should say wallowing—in unkempt bachelor quarters on the Upper East Side as the story gets under way in 1974. One simply does not believe Hux has enough common sense and decency to endure the ordeals and attain the recognitions laid out for him by the plot. Indeed, at the risk of sounding prim, I would guess that most, perhaps all of this character’s life crises would melt away like mist if he stopped getting drunk, cut back on casual sex, stopped gluttonous consumption of unappetizing food, and took exercise. This reform might not make him decent but at least it would quiet him down.
Hux is thirty-seven when the story begins. Ten years earlier, while still…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.