Writer's memories of childhood show resilient spirit

October 07, 1990|By MOLLY McQUADE

A Hole in the World: an American Boyhood. Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $19.95. Nearly everyone who passes through childhood loses all but a memory of it. In his ninth book Richard Rhodes lays a claim to this memory as he might to his life. The memory is often bitter; he writes with fury and tenderness. Yet remembering his past seems to reconcile him to it and to free him from it in the short span of a remarkable new work.

The memoir's outline is this: The author's mother committed suicide when he was just over a year old; "at the beginning of my life the world acquired a hole." His father cared for him and one of his two older brothers, Stan, in a succession of boardinghouses in and around Kansas City before remarrying when Mr. Rhodes was 10. The stepmother, usually with the father's tacit agreement, intimidated, exploited and all but starved the boys for a period of two years, until finally Stan went to the local police for help. With the consent of both brothers, a juvenile-court judge decided to remove them from the Rhodes home to the comparative safety and health of the Andrew Drumm Institute, a farm and residence in rural Missouri for boys without families able to support them. Mr. Rhodes worked and studied there for six years, then entered Yale.

The story -- his story -- has clearly shaped Mr. Rhodes' previous writing, much of which has involved death, violence and deliverance from them. His first novel, "The Ungodly," concerned the notorious Donner party, a band of American pioneers forced into cannibalism by the deprivations of a fierce winter. His most celebrated work of non-fiction is "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1988. Morally convinced, Mr. Rhodes does not reduce in scope what is morally difficult; his scrutiny contains a trace of respectful terror.

The terror, as the book confirms, is his own; it could hardly be closer to the bone. However, the wonder of "A Hole in the World" is less the cruelties a child suffered than his resilience of spirit, embodied in the gravity of rhythmic prose. Mr. Rhodes writes, "Limestone underlay all that region of western Missouri and eastern Kansas; in the Mississippian era, two hundred million years past, it had thickened with echinoderms and foraminifera under a shallow sea. . . . The world was enormous and enormously minute and I saw it all unblurred. Death had come and gone, darkness spilling into the world and a life ablated before I had capacity to mourn it."

His impressions of childhood during the interval between the loss of his mother and the arrival of his stepmother are Joycean in sensory exultation. His words are physical and baptismal, then plain sublime. This is so when Mr. Rhodes describes butchering a steer at the Drumm Institute -- its "great tun of guts slumped fTC

free," yielding "the gargoyle of its dark green gallbladder" and "foamy pink lungs." It is equally true when he writes about harvesting potatoes, or about the pleasure of eating tomatoes "like fine young cannibals, raw juice running from our mouths." His dignity in narrating his stepmother's petty, punishing regime evokes sympathy but not pity, particularly impressive in a story that could send us straight to our Kleenexes. The story is sad, but it is sad in measured cadences.

Mr. Rhodes is so specific in the telling and the tale that one tends to forget the many children who have experiences similar to his or much worse. This is a tribute, in a way, to the writer -- he speaks with an intimacy very distant from podium rhetoric. Still, the force of his compassion is implicit and pronounced. "I could be a wise man, I could be my own father, but I'd have to find my way across childhood first," Mr. Rhodes writes. If only everyone could do as well as that.

Ms. McQuade is a writer living in New York.

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