CARPOOL. By Mary Cahill. Random House. 258 pages. $19. READ ANY Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries lately? Random House has managed to publish a first -- an adult, adolescent mystery.
Ellicott City resident Mary Cahill's first novel, "Carpool," reads like 100 teen novels rolled into one. Remember the naive heroine bumping into a dead body hanging from a tree in the fog? Remember the accidental clues -- the lost buttons and lights in the deserted tower? Cahill's novel has a familiar ring, a predictable, plot-laden format. If you like the obvious TV-like movement from action scene to action scene with no connecting comments, you will enjoy this book.
However, if you've the sensibility of an English major, you'll be bothered by "Carpool." For example, the story is written confusingly from several first-person viewpoints. And Cahill uses the place name "Ulyssia" and even "James Joyce," but if this novel is supposed to mirror "Ulysses," roll over, Leopold Bloom!
The main "I's" in "Carpool" are Jenny Meade and Thomas Black Cloud, the Indian detective. We follow Jenny as she tries to revive her air delivery service, and we become involved in Black Cloud's musings, but he, by far the more intriguing character, remains undeveloped. Why are we allowed to see the incidents from his point of view but aren't permitted to relate to him?
We seem to be following the trail of a murderer, but along the way, we become involved in Jenny's desire to fly again, Rebecca's abusive marriage and Kay's discovery of her husband's infidelity. Sound rather soapy? Kay's husband Frazier, the murderer and adulterer, appears to be the figure connecting some of these sub-plots, but again, we are not allowed to see him as a fully developed character.
Is he just evil personified? He, like the other main characters, is difficult to visualize, for the lack of physical description is another problem here. Remember skipping over the long descriptive passages in required high school reading? Try reading a book without those passages and you'll get that hollow, blind-alley feeling one gets from "Carpool."
In spite of its drawbacks, though, this novel did make it to the reading public. Indeed, at a time when most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, Random House plucked Cahill's book from the "slush pile" and is promoting it heavily this month and next -- but only at suburban locations.
And suburbanites will see something of themselves in "Carpool." The humorous encounters in Jenny's carpool crowd are funny. We all know the back-seat driver. "You went through a yellow light," Matty wails to Jenny. She replies as sweetly as she can, "The light wasn't yellow, Matty dear." The clenched smile comes through clearly.
There is a statement being made here that goes beyond "please don't eat the daisies" humor. According to the book jacket, this is a novel of "suburban frustration." (It's set in Howard County, lTC thinly disguised as "Clark County.") If Jenny and her family represent suburban America, this segment of the population is unfulfilled, unhappy and dull. Suburbanites spin their wheels and dream of flying.
In the meantime, their children are caught in the middle of this sterile existence. They are carpooled from one activity to another, leading over-scheduled, affection-free lives. Perhaps, though, as the novel suggests, their lot will improve as their parents solve their own problems. Without the parents around to carpool them, the children will be forced to find their own ways or give up some of their activities. With all that free time, they just might find the path to escape.
Joan E. Hellman is associate professor of developmental education at Catonsville Community College.