Scott Turow’s first novel, Presumed Innocent, appeared three years ago, remained on the Times best-seller list for fifty-four weeks, and has just been made into a movie. For much of its length it is an interesting, competently written work of detective and courtroom fiction, with a wider social range than is usual, providing entertaining observations on arcane legal matters that Turow, himself a practicing lawyer, presents with commendable clarity. The novel’s climax is a suspenseful trial scene in which the defense is brilliantly conducted by an Argentinian-Jewish lawyer named Alejandro Stern. Unfortunately, Turow seriously undermined whatever literary claims his book might have had by what I consider an act of novelistic bad faith: the revelation near the novel’s end of crucial information that the first-person narrator has until then concealed from the reader. This trick makes psychological nonsense of the narrator’s carefully rendered thoughts and intimate feelings, which have been laid out from the start.
In his new novel, The Burden of Proof, “Sandy” Stern is the leading character. As the book opens, Stern returns home from a business trip and discovers that Clara, his wife for thirty-one years, has committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Her body has been “cooked” by the heat generated by the car’s long-running motor in the closed garage, which now reeks of putrefaction. Clara’s note, left in the bedroom, says only, “Can you forgive me?”
Why has an apparently admirable, dignified, self-controlled woman done such a thing? This is a question that is pursued for the next five hundred pages, but it is far from the only question. Even before Clara’s body has had time to reach room temperature, we are involved in the question of why the United States attorney’s office is issuing subpoenas to the clients of Stern’s brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell, the piratical head of a huge commodity-futures trading empire. What has Dixon, Stern’s most difficult client (“callous, self-centered”), been up to? Evidently something so serious that two FBI agents try to serve him with a subpoena just as the family is leaving for Clara’s funeral. What of a laboratory bill showing that Clara had recently undergone medical tests? Did she have cancer? Why did the independently rich Clara draw a certified check for $850,000 from her account a few days before her suicide? To whom was the check made out? Why has it never cleared?
Turow thickens the plot so rapidly that by the end of the first half of the novel the reader is staggering under the burden less of proof than of the accumulation of questions that need to be resolved. How on earth could the admirable Clara have contracted genital herpes? Is Stern’s doctor-son, Peter, homosexual? Will Stern now marry his kindly, middle-aged neighbor Helen or the young, pregnant assistant US attorney, Sonia Klonsky? Each question breeds a little flock of unsatisfactory answers that pose further questions, even though a number lead nowhere. Yet Turow has other aims than merely to write a novel of highly complicated (and somewhat tepid) suspense. Clearly he intends The Burden of Proof to be a portrait of a decent, conscientious man whose devotion to his profession has led him to neglect, however benevolently, the children whom he loves and the wife whose needs he has never really understood.
Alas, Alejandro Stern, plausible enough in action as a trial lawyer in Presumed Innocent, turns out to be something of a bore when viewed close up. He has the expected feelings and thoughts and responses, not one of them in the least provocative or psychologically interesting. His misunderstanding of his family and his dealings with the moral outlaw Dixon Hartnell have an obviousness about them even as they reveal new facts. This is how Stern sums up his situation to his daughter Marta in the last third of the novel:
No person speaks accurately of the feelings of years and decades in a few lines. I cannot see your mother apart from the life we had. I had the good fortune of most people who find any contentment to have determined what mattered to me and to have achieved some of it. My work. My family. I adored the three of you—I suspect that was never adequately communicated, but it has always been true. And I cared greatly for your mother. I know I disappointed her terribly, over time…. But I believe, after months of reflection, that I am a better and more capable person than she was willing to see me as being.
Although Turow meticulously describes the houses, bathrooms, cars (mostly Cadillacs), and office furniture, the settings are inert. The secondary characters, too, are decorated with attributes—Stern’s son-in-law John, for instance, is “a sweet Gentile lunk, an almost laughable prototype, a football player and a paragon of blond male beauty with his apple-pie face and hapless manner”—but they exist less in their own right than as functionaries in the muted drama of Stern’s self-education. The talk is mostly ponderous. (“Sonny, there are no disembodied principles in the practice of law…. There are human beings in every role, in every case.”) When Stern in not explaining things, the author is:
“This is a subpoena duces tecum, Dixon—a request for records. Ordinarily, the government would not send two agents to serve it. The prosecutors were attempting to deliver a message.”
“They want to scare the shit out of me.”
“As you would have it.” Stern nodded. “I imagine they felt you would soon hear of the investigation. No doubt, had I not intervened, the agents would have sought to interrogate you while you were carrying on.”
“How bad will this be?” Dixon asked.
“I think that you should not compare this with your prior encounters with the IRS and the CFTC.” The Commodities Futures Trading Commission was the federal agency that regulated the futures industry, the equivalent of the SEC. “They are bureaucrats and their first love is their own rules. Their minds do not run automatically to prosecution. Federal grand juries sit to indict. This is a serious business, Dixon.”
The Burden of Proof is extremely informative on the subject of the laws regarding futures trading—a subject some readers may find less enthralling than the laws regarding murder. The novel has been the occasion for much publicity including a cover story on Turow in Time, and immediately after publication it went to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.
The Music Room, a first novel by Dennis McFarland, was for a brief moment on the same list, and it is commended by many worthy writers, among them both the late patriarch and the current doyenne of Southern literature, Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. One reader is reminded of listening to Mozart; another read it in a condition that he said could only be described as rapt; still another said she was made to catch her breath by some of the writer’s sentences and even by a mere word. The reviews have been equally praising.
Narrated in the first person by a young man named Martin Lambert, The Music Room begins with a string of misfortunes. Martin’s wife, after two miscarriages, has left him, and he is cleaning up their San Francisco apartment, crying as he vacuums the stars from the walls of the unused nursery. The telephone rings with the news that his younger brother Perry has fallen from the twenty-third-floor window of a Manhattan hotel, apparently a suicide. Martin himself is clearly in a very shaky condition. As he hurries to New York and sets about trying to understand what could have led his twenty-five-year-old brother to kill himself, his dreams begin, in their frequency and intensity, to verge on madness, while much of his recorded action consists of draining a glass of Scotch and pouring himself another. His inquiries involve him not only with Perry’s girlfriend, Jane Owlcaster, and other friends in New York, but with a fragmented search for his own past.
Memory rushes in, with scenes (painful or lyrical or both) from the family’s house in Norfolk or at the cottage in Newport where his alcoholic parents led their futile, self-indulgent lives. The father, Rudy, is a failed musician who has inherited millions from his mother, a Norfolk coal and tobacco heiress; his wife, Helen, is a former chorus girl whom he met at a craps table in Las Vegas. The father secludes himself in the music room playing Schubert sonatas and drinking, while the mother plays cards and gets “house-drunk” with two repellent hangers-on. The two boys, alternately neglected and indulged, cling together. Marty is fiercely protective of Perry, who at sixteen is a “dead ringer” for James Dean; furthermore, the brothers look so much alike that people often mistake one for the other. By the end, Martin, increasingly sodden with drink and recalling the hatreds and resentments of a lifetime, abruptly reforms and goes to work for a refuge for abused children that Perry had supported before his still-unexplained suicide.
In recounting these events, Dennis McFarland displays considerable virtuosity. Again and again he sets up an episode and then leaps away from it, laterally or into the past. When, for instance, Martin gets the initial telephone call about Perry’s death, he does not react with anguish or incredulity but instead:
Stupidly, I asked the man to hold the line for a moment. I returned to the nursery, then moved to the French windows that overlooked the garden. On the south fence, a hummingbird darted in and out of a passionflower vine, and in a distant window…I could see a young nurse in a white uniform and cap; I waved to her, but quite sensibly she didn’t wave back, and moved away out of sight. When I returned to the kitchen, I saw that the receiver of the cardinal-red telephone lay on the bare floor. I picked it up and spoke into it. I relied on extreme politeness to get through the rest of the conversation.
This is unexpected and effective (though I’m inclined to question that wave to the nurse). The constant shuttling back and forth—between present and past, between dream and waking reality—is handled with ingenuity. Apart from a shift in tense that seems too schematic—past episodes and dreams are always rendered in the present, present action in the past—the narrative moves forward smoothly. McFarland evokes the past with strongly registered sensuous detail, as in this account of a teen-age beach party:
As someone throws more driftwood onto a huge bonfire on the beach, twisted screens of sparks fly up, are caught by the wind, and die. Someone plays white, city-kid blues on a guitar. Couples stroll away and are swallowed up by the blackness outside the circle of fire. Couples return arm in arm. Small groups, mostly of boys, leave—somebody’s got dope—and return. Many of the girls and boys are darkly tanned. The sharp smells of the fire and of the sea air dominate, but underneath, there are the sweeter, more tribal odors of coconut oil, cocoa butter, baby oil and iodine.
Yet, despite the cleverness of The Music Room and the felicity of some of its passages, I felt throughout a nagging sense of inauthenticity. To a Virginian such as the reviewer, the Norfolk setting, for one thing, is all wrong—topographically, architecturally, botanically, and socially, with its horse farms, stone walls, and a columned house set on a hill. In his effort to achieve a romantically southern effect, McFarland seems to confuse the sprawling suburbs of a city notable for its strip developments, tidal inlets, and a major naval base with the horse country of northern Virginia on the one hand and a Louisiana plantation on the other. A Norfolk debutante in 1923 (Marty’s grandmother) would be most unlikely to have had a fortune of $15 million from whatever source, and rich Virginians would not have spent their summers in a twelve-room stone cottage in Newport, however prosperous they were. The Newport settings seem nearly as phony as the Virginian; only the New York scenes ring true.
More important, the inauthenticity extends to the characterizations and to the novel’s sentimental ending. The melancholy musician father and the former-chorus-girl mother seem too obviously an incongruous and unlikely pairing. Almost everything they say or do is connected with drinking, which gets monotonous, and their situation is never more than pathetic. While Perry dominates the narrator’s thoughts, appearing in vivid flashes as a boy with a gift for the unexpected, his personality never fully coheres, and one is left with a sense of false starts. Martin himself fails to make clear why his immersion in the past should have had such a therapeutic and morally redemptive result as the novel’s ending proclaims; the hints in the book that Martin has homoerotic and murderous feelings toward his brother are left dangling. The confrontations that the subject seems to call for are ducked and we are left with a novel in which sleight-of-hand effects take the place of substance.
Christopher Tilghman is a writer who does not duck issues or short change his reader. Each of the seven short stories in his impressive first collection, In a Father’s Place, works like a novel in miniature. Each is grounded not only in a richly detailed setting but in a family history and in the psychologically complex relations among parents and children, husbands and wives. The first story, “On the Rivershore,” opens with a landscape:
Between the clay banks of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay there is a beach a thousand miles long. The sand is fine enough, but is is sharp with oyster shells and rough with stones the color of oxblood and ginger. There’s always a tangled line of seaweed running the length of the last high tide. Except for this narrow divider, the rolled farmland and mirrored water meet so seamlessly that on hazy days the big mansions, their pecans and honey locusts like sails, seem to be making their way, somewhere, on the shimmer of the Bay.
Then the story closes in on the main character:
On one spot of this beach along the Chester River, there is a boy sitting on the polished curve of a washedup loblolly pine. His eyes are dry now, but the dirt on his cheeks is streaked and there is salt on his lips. He is holding a crab net and an empty bushel basket, and his broad-brimmed straw hat floats in the water at his feet.
The boy is Cecil Mayberry, aged twelve, the son of a farm hand who works for the owner of the local manor; he has just witnessed his beloved father shoot and kill a “crazy son-of-a-bitch,” a local waterman named Tommie Todman, who has been forcing himself upon Cecil’s elder sister. The boy knows he has to tell someone—because “even if the buzzards eat Tommie clean up and no one cares or misses him ever, he knows his daddy, and sooner or later, after milking is done today probably, he’s going to walk into Officer Stapleton’s office and turn himself in.” He decides to tell his father’s employer, Mr. McHugh, who lives at the Big House, and he thus sets in motion the burial of Tommie’s corpse in the bay and a confrontation between the local farmers and their hereditary enemies, the watermen. In only twenty-two pages a small society, with its occupations, its class structure, and its codes (e.g., no waterman learns how to swim), has been revealed.
Tilghman seems perfectly at ease in a variety of milieus. In “Loose Reins,” the leading character, Hal, is the son of a well-to-do Yale graduate who had moved to Montana in the late Thirties with his Philadelphia debutante wife and became the owner of a prosperous thousand-acre ranch. Now, decades later, his widow, Jean, has suddenly married a battered, formerly drunken ranch hand called Roy, whom she had befriended over the years, and Hal and his wife are traveling west from Boston to see them. Not only is the Montana landscape evoked carefully and knowledgeably but so are the language and attitudes of the old ranch hand who now preposterously has become Hal’s stepfather. In the story’s climactic scene, Roy, whom Hal has always regarded as little better than a half-wit, is sent to retrieve Hal from a local bar, where he has gone to drown with bourbon his dismay over his mother’s new situation. There Roy startles Hal by revealing an unexpectedly acute insight into the family’s life.
“I never really knew your dad. No one did. But this was sure: nothing came natural to the man. Nothing at all.” It sure wasn’t ranching, Roy went on, though he’d become one of the best ranchers in Montana. And it sure wasn’t raising a family.
“I’ll give it to you straight,” said Roy. “I hated the man. And there’s one thing I’ll never forgive his memory for. It was the way he looked at his family and saw right through them, right out the other side, as if there was nothing to take pride in.”
“Good God,” said Hal. “You knew that?”
“Just because I was drunk didn’t mean I was deaf. I used to watch you and Markie [Hal’s younger brother] fighting over who would sit next to him in the pickup. I coulda told you to forget it. It made me sad, seeing you kids try to please him.”
In “Hole in the Day,” a young mechanic, Grant, and his wife, Lonnie, live in an isolated spot on the endless grassy plains of South Dakota. He has grown up there and likes it, but Lonnie, who has already had four children and discovers she is pregnant again, can stand her life no longer. One night she stops her husband in the middle of their love-making and drives off. We follow Grant as he tries to deal with his children; he leaves the older ones with his dour mother and sister in Nebraska, and sets off—accompanied by the baby whom no one will take—in successful pursuit of his wife. Tilghman dramatizes the situation of the desperate young couple without condescension and the children are remarkably real.
In only one story does Tilghman’s touch seem less than sure, and that is in the title story, “In a Father’s Place.” Like “On the Rivershore” and “A Gracious Rain,” it is set on the eastern shore of Maryland. A middle-aged lawyer. Dan, the owner of a fine old house that has been in his family since the seventeenth century, is visited by his daughter, Rachel, his son, Nick, and Nick’s girlfriend, Patty. Patty is presented as a shrewish young deconstructionist who, according to the admiring but dominated Nick, “tore the English Department at Columbia apart.” She is pushing Nick to complete a novel which, according to him, is “not really about anything, not a plot, anyway.” “I know she’s not for everyone,” Nick continues, attempting to explain Patty to his father, “but I’ve never known anyone who takes less shit in her life.” Tilghman seems ill at ease in presenting the intellectual credentials of this fierce young woman and the deepening conflict between her and Dan. The portrait of the father who is both burdened and sustained by his family’s past and must now face the dispersal of his children and the end of an increasingly untenable way of life is, however, movingly done.
One begins the stories in Tilghman’s collection with no idea where each will lead. But after finishing several of them, the reader is confident that something eventful and even surprising lies ahead. In a Father’s Place leaves me impatient to see what he will write next.
August 16, 1990