Essays show sensitivity to moral questions

April 21, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

GOOD BOYS AND DEAD GIRLS.

Mary Gordon.

Viking.

253 pages. $19.95.

From her first novel, "Final Payments," to her most recennovel, "The Other Side," Mary Gordon has established herself as an observant chronicler of Irish-American Catholic culture. In her fiction she describes the insularity of this immigrant culture -- its conservatism, its suspicion of outsiders, its sexual prudery and its fundamental insecurity. She sees Irish blarney as a defense by which the talker seeks to conceal his inner life behind a witty, bitingly humorous garrulity.

She is particularly interested in the lives of women, and her fictional portraits are vivid and memorable, from the matriarch Ellen MacNamara in "The Other Side" -- embittered, limited and powerful, fed on rage -- to her ambivalent granddaughter, Cam. Her depictions of family relationships, bound by mutually destructive needs and helpless love, are bleak and unsparing. She is fundamentally a realist writer interested in the forces that shape character and a moralist concerned with questions of conduct.

The same themes, ideas and issues that animate her fiction also are to be found in this collection of her critical writings. It consists of 28 essays, reviews and occasional pieces written over a 15-year period and divided under the headings "On Writers and Writing," "The World, The Church, The Lives of Women" and "Parts of a Journal."

All but the title essay had previously been published. Such a collection is inevitably an amalgam. Its drawback is that it probably can't cohere in ways that distinguish an intentional book. Its advantage is that it shows the writer at work, revealing a spectrum of her interests and concerns over time, as she fulfills various assignments.

Ms. Gordon is an intelligent critic who writes with conviction and clarity. Her title essay is her most ambitious, in which she examines the American myth of the innocent boy hero, drawn by the lure of the frontier, which symbolizes freedom and escape from fate. He is in flight from civilization, which is represented by women. This myth contrasts the "pure relation between males" with "the muddled, corrupt relation between males and females." In order to preserve his freedom, his innocence and his purity, the boy hero must kill the woman whose enticing sexuality threatens him.

After examining this myth as it is expressed in the works of male American writers, Ms. Gordon asks the question: How ought we to read these "dominant storytellers" after we have seen through the "adolescent solipsism" of their visions? Her answer is eminently reasonable: We conduct a case-by-case, cost-benefit analysis, deciding "whether the pleasure we get from the book is worth this displeasure of its distortions."

dTC Her other literary essays and reviews are for the most part appreciations, in which she kindles interest in the writers and books she is discussing. In two autobiographical essays, "Getting Here From There: A Writer's Reflections on a Religious Past" and " 'I Can't Stand Your Books': A Writer Goes Home," she explores the influences of her up bringing on her writing. It was "the very hiddenness of the lives of Irish-Americans" that made them "an irresistible subject" for her fiction.

What is most valuable and compelling about these essays is Ms. Gordon's acute sensitivity to moral questions. She speaks of how "parents cheat children by refusing to understand that everything is serious to them and that it is the modulations of the adult world that cause them such confused grief." Her two essays on abortion are commendable examples of reasonable and well-reasoned argument. "It is essential for a moral decision about abortion to be made in an atmosphere of open criticalness," she writes. "It is crucial to remember that the birth of a child itself is a neutral occurrence emotionally: the charge it takes on is invested in it by the people experiencing or observing it."

She has been called an iconoclast, but in fact she is too fine a moralist for iconoclasm. If she has lost the substance of her faith, she has nevertheless kept her love for its old forms and rituals, and for its heroic and tragic literature.

One wishes that she had included an introductory essay, linking and distinguishing the concerns that have interested her.

While she admires Virginia Woolf, she seems uncomfortable with Woolf's vision of androgynous, incandescent genius. As a writer, she resembles her own description of Edna O'Brien, writing out of a dual sense of shame and love, whose female characters are "strange, throttled, sacrificial." "No voice could be less androgynous or more rooted in a land."

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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