Ecology and mythology in a Southern town

November 11, 1990|By REBECCA W. BOYLAN

King's Oak.

Anne Rivers Siddons.

HarperCollins.

623 pages. $21.95. King's Oak" bears in its title both the "royalty" of the Southern gentility and the wild beauty that nature takes on in the South. The paradox of this enigmatic partnership between the studied regime of the upper crust and the surreal wantonness of nature )) is the heart of the conflict in "King's Oak."

xTC The novel begins with an escape. "Andy" Calhoun escapes with her 8-year-old daughter, Hilary, from Chris Calhoun, the physically and emotionally abusive husband and father. Andy and Hilary's refuge is in Pemberton, Ga. This is the home of Tish, Andy's closest friend from college days. Pemberton is a town divided by its labels: Old Pemberton and New Pemberton, Old Pemberton is made up of estates owned by "old money." New Pemberton includes the Winter People, those of "new money" who come down from Maine in the winter to live off the leisure pursuits and excesses of Old Pemberton -- hunting, dancing, horse riding, "partying and clubbing" and drinking. New Pemberton also includes the families of the nearby nuclear waste plant employees.

Andy and Hilary, although not easily and not altogether naturally, attempt to find a pace of life to which they can adapt. Andy immerses herself in a frenetic social whirlwind that rivals that of Princess Diana, though exactly how she can afford this is never explained; after all, her job is that of a rather lowly staff worker at the junior college. Hilary tries out the elitism of horseback riding and the plebeianism of public school. Neither works out, and Hilary is not healing from her emotional traumas suffered while living with her father.

Soon, mother and daughter meet Tom Dabney, the wild and crazy man of the woods. Tom is related to Pemberton's blue blood, but except for the poetry classes he teaches at the junior college and rare appearances at parties, he is wedded body and soul to the banks of Goat Creek. Here he lives in total harmony with Nature, seeking solace, justice and ageless wisdom from its laws and creatures. Survival for himself, the woods and its ancient myths consume Tom.

In Hilary, he has a natural and ready follower. Hilary takes to the grace of hunting with a bow and arrow and to the powerful love she shares with her pet raccoon and goat. In Andy, Tom catches an excitable, doubting but enraptured lover.

As Andy's joy doubles so do her troubles. Tish is forced between Andy and the town's scorn. Tom isn't always able to live in a rational, real world or communicate with Andy's less extreme perspective. Hilary's fragile emotions are wrestled with dangerously as death mysteriously attacks the woodland's creatures and creek. What had begun to heal her now is destroying her. At one point, Andy believes she has lost Tom, Hilary and even herself.

Madmen often end up in jail -- and so Tom does. But Andy knows that although his methods might be wrong, his madness isn't. All testing of the nuclear plant's cesspools places their toxicity well within the safety range. And yet, Tom and Andy know that the plant has the answers that are locked behind a violently defensive town that believes in its plant and the economy it affords.

Andy's struggle between moral and legal law is real. In siding with morality, Andy must renounce the measurements of justice she has always known. She now sees Tom no longer as mad nor as hero, but rather as saint. As a saint, removed from reality, he needs protection to survive. Andy must be protector.

Ms. Siddons' achievement is her story, its plot and characters. Also in her favor is the role she affords myth. She wonderfully lets loose myth's powers in the character of Tom. The myths governing Tom are the myths of the woods, of nature, of all humankind; they reveal a faith in goodness, in mutual respect and cooperation between land, beast and man, and in the awe of life and death.

Ms. Siddons fails, though, in her delivery of this message. Realism and fantasy are confused. Her overwriting drowns us in bathos; if ever there is responsibility to use clean and fluid language it is in a story about man's instinctive roots within nature's delicacy. Finally, if the language were less conspicuous and draining, Ms. Siddons' perspective might be expanded to include a larger readership. Given her timely message, it is certain that she intended to attract this larger readership. However, tedious metaphors and embarrassingly bawdy stream-of-consciousness detract from the reader's belief and enjoyment.

Ms. Siddons continues to prove herself a storyteller with a purpose, but her language needs as much cleansing as Goat's Creek.

Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.

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