Three novelists look unflinchingly at death

November 04, 1990|By DIANE SCHARPER

Whenever Dr. Amelia Stern remembers certain passages in "Little Women," she becomes enraged. In Chapter 40, Louisa May Alcott calls death a "benignant angel." When it comes, Beth will close her eyes and go gently. But death is no angel, Dr. Stern thinks. Nor should we go gently to it. Death is terrible. Literature should acknowledge the terror.

Amelia Stern is the protagonist of "Other Women's Children," bPerri Klass (Random House, 284 pages, $19.95). Dr. Klass, a writer and pediatrician, has written a near-flawless book, using an unusual method. The story begins as a third-person narrator describes the tensions of a doctor/mother who tries to balance her professional and personal life; a few pages later, another narrator breaks in, saying: "This is not the story I was intending to write. . . . How can anyone write about children who die?"

Gradually, two stories emerge. One focuses on Amelia Stern, a pediatrician in a Boston teaching hospital; the other focuses on the death of children and the Writer who describes her agony as she watches them. Since the Writer (possibly Dr. Klass) also is a pediatrician and a mother, the effect is powerful.

The novel reads with the authority of a memoir, the intensity of poem. This is not a melodrama, the Writer tells us; it's people who "bleed all over you, and you ram tubes down their noses to suck the vomit out." Amelia's job is to make those people well; the writer's job: "to rage," as Dylan Thomas wrote, "against the dying of the light."

But Amelia also is a mother. The conflict of the novel describes her anxiety as she tries "to make life stretch." In one scene, she holds her 4-year-old son, Alex, and blows raspberries on his belly button, covered with chicken pox. Meanwhile, she visualizes Darren, a patient who is dying of AIDS. "How can you leave a dying child's bedside," she asks, "and go home to your own life, your child?" The book offers no answer to such questions. Asking them is enough.

The characters in "Old Soldier," Vance Bourjaily's latest nove(Donald I. Fine, 169 pages, $18.95), keep their feelings to themselves. As retired Sgt. Joe McKay puts it, "death is a grief for which we have no words." Written in spare, ironic prose, this poignant novel works by symbolism and understatement. The author looks at death and brotherly love. And he asks readers to question their sentimental assumptions about both. Specifically, Mr. Bourjaily, a writer and teacher of writers (currently at Louisiana State, formerly at the Iowa Writers Workshop), looks at AIDS and its effect on the lives of two brothers: Tommy McKay and Sgt. Joe McKay.

As the story begins, Joe's marriage breaks up. Feeling lost, hreconciles with his musician brother, Tommy. Joe and Tommy are as dissimilar as brothers can be. Joe, the protagonist, with his dark hair and Indian features, is rugged. Blond, blue-eyed Tommy is an artist, and he's gay. Soon Joe sees Tommy as the caring, sensitive person that he is; he also learns that Tommy has AIDS. Tommy has to fight for his life and fight the prejudice of society. Joe must decide how (and if) he's going to help.

As the story ends, Tommy's music becomes a symbosuggesting the meaning of his death and of the life that continues. Finding Tommy's bagpipe, Joe plays a

song, "letting it [his grief] elaborate itself in long slow pulses." Then he places the bagpipe in the river: "the red plaid bugger . . . floats jauntily away, like some kind of goofy Scotch, freshwater octopus, with half its legs sticking up in the air."

Patrick McGrath's second novel, "Spider" (Poseidon, 221 pagesis the most difficult book of the three. It's also the most literary; the texture is thick with allusions, word play and time shifts. Like "The Grotesque," Mr. McGrath's first novel, this one abounds with murder, mayhem and questions.

The protagonist is a highly nervous, quite eccentric, young man named Dennis Cleg. Dennis, also known as Spider, lives in a London slum, in a halfway house, run by a vindictive woman named Mrs. Wilkinson. Describing the house -- something out of Poe, Kafka and Dostoevsky -- in his journal, Spider remembers the squalid neighborhood where he grew up.

The plot tells how he grew up. Here Mr. McGrath tantalizes angratifies readers with ambiguity: Either Spider's father murdered his wife and drove Spider insane; or Spider, suffering from a twisted Oedipus complex, accidentally killed his own mother. Either way, Spider says, his mother died because of Hilda Wilkinson, his father's paramour. Now Spider suffers the nightmare of her loss. And, as Spider explains, he writes about her and her dying "to control the terror."

Death, as these novelists see it, is anything but a benignanangel. It's a terrible thing. Their novels acknowledge that.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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