Novel illustrates moral necessity for empathy

May 05, 1991|By Sherie Posesorski

A DANGEROUS WOMAN.

Mary McGarry Morris.

Viking.

358 pages. $19.95.

I picked up "Vanished," Mary McGarry Morris' extravagantlpraised debut novel, skeptically wondering if it would live up to its hyperbolic reputation.

"Vanished" was nominated for the National Book Award and Pen/Faulkner award in 1988 and the author was favorably

compared to Dickens, Dostoevski and McCullers. Critics frequently commented on the dissimilarity between Ms. Morris' National Enquirer premise -- a slightly retarded, married, middle-aged man runs off with a teen-age girl who kidnaps a baby girl and they are on the run for years -- and the stability of Ms. Morris' life and her 29 years of marriage and five children.

I was immediately possessed by "Vanished's" piercing and ingenious story line, and by its drumbeat of inevitable disaster. The main character, Aubie Wallace -- a simple-minded, passive man -- is desperate for the love and regard that he will never receive from anyone. Ms. Morris renders him with a depth of understanding, and the contrast between the emotional richness and eloquence of inner life and his inability to express himself (he is almost choking with feeling) is technically impressive and terribly moving.

For days afterward, Aubie stayed with me, and so has Martha Hogan, the heroine of Ms. Morris' superb second novel, "A Dangerous Woman." Like Aubie, Martha, 32, is a misfit, a loner, driven deep inside herself by a community frightened and contemptuous of her difference. Since childhood, Martha has been raging with pain, which she releases in spasmodic jerks of ultimately self-destructive fury. She behaves with the emotional directness and self-righteousness of a child and acts according to the dictates of her emotions. The fierceness of her emotions, combined with the consuming quality of her need to belong and to be loved, keeps others at a wary and scornful distance.

Ms. Morris has created Martha with pitiless objectivity (we understand why the other characters hurt, flee and fear her) and such strong symbiotic empathy that we feel her misery and turbulence.

Martha has been ostracized for as long as she can remember. It is as if she operates on a different frequency from others. Whatever minimum contact she had with others (she lives with her father in a garage apartment on her aunt's estate) ends with a horrible sexual hazing by a group of teen-age boys. When her father reports that she was nearly gang-raped, the police side with the boys, and Martha withdraws until the death of her father thrusts her back into the community.

She gets a job at a dry cleaners. When the manager, Birdy Dussler, is somewhat kind and friendly to her, Martha becomes so grateful, so attached to her, that Birdy backs off. Inevitably Martha gets fired. She returns to Aunt Frances' home, where she relentlessly phones and writes Birdy, trying to right things between them -- that is, until she transfers her obsession to Colin MacKay, a handyman cum failed writer whom Frances hires to fix up the dilapidated estate.

Frustration, desperation and disconnection dog every character and relationship in "A Dangerous Woman." It makes each of the characters behave worse than they wish they had. And Ms. Morris leaves us painfully aware of the moral necessity of empathy in this powerful novel.

Ms. Posesorski is a writer living in Toronto.

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