MacNeil novel makes WWI disaster news again

March 29, 1992|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune

BURDEN OF DESIRE.

Robert MacNeil.

Doubleday.

467 pages. $22.50. Some years ago, Wilfrid Sheed rebuked the grandiose claims of the New Journalists by noticing how many had tried writing fiction, proving there were matters of fact that only the imagination could handle.

In his first such work, Robert MacNeil (as in Public Broadcasting's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour") reminds us that the word "novel" means news that stays news and proves himself a novelist of both large and subtle gifts.

Most of his news shouldn't be new but is, to our peril: Freud's discovery that reason is not master in its own house of the mind; that the feral paroxysms and happy hysteria of war, such as we saw only a year ago, suicidally threaten the future of the species; that throughout this century love has warred with death -- and death is winning.

He also gives us a riveting love triangle that begins, ironically enough, when a ship carrying 225 tons of dynamite collides with another ship entering the harbor of MacNeil's native Halifax, Nova Scotia, and explodes on Dec. 6, 1917, during the bloody last year of World War I, of which even this cataclysm was only a microcosmic emblem.

That was the war in which the Western world began to bleed to death, as the late Walker Percy said; when the tireless and arrogant stupidity of generals like Field Marshal Douglas Haig spent 1,265,000 lives to win 8 miles of cratered mud near the River Somme "at a cost of 200 lives a foot."

Mr. MacNeil vividly re-creates an obscure historical disaster, complete with divers standing in dry air after the blast scooped water and boulders from the harbor bottom. He also gives us a novel of development in which the parallel mental worlds of two young Haligonians -- a rigid, ambitious and repressed Anglican clergyman and a fumbling, earnest and sensual early disciple of Freud -- compete for the love of an anonymous woman whose diary turns up among some old clothes collected for the relief effort after the blast in Halifax harbor.

The reader knows she is Julia Robertson, a beautiful and sophisticated native of Montreal who studied art in Paris and whose yearnings for a husband who has been in France for two years she tries to ease in a frank journal of past sexual experience and present temptations.

Her narrative inflames both Peter Wentworth, the inadequately married young curate of the city's brand new jerry-built cathedral, and Stewart MacPherson, the academic psychologist, who are at the same time trying to make sense and order out of the disappearance, in a blast of light and blinding glass, of all the overripe and ultimately murderous Victorian verities.

Eventually identified by the two men who seek her -- and themselves -- in the chaos after the blast, Julia learns of her husband's death at about the same time she guiltily becomes attracted to each of the two, who grew up together (Peter poor and straight-arrow, Stewart rich and miserably highbrow) in a classically sadistic prep school.

What sounds stereotyped in summary comes vivdly to life in Mr. MacNeil's perfect fusion of events and characters.

As to which man wins, it's enough to say that even during his bad old school days, "some instinct told (Stewart) that his were the skills now favored by evolution -- intelligence, language, and humor."

This is a rich, abundantly humane love story about games of love and death that still go on, with probably fatal consequences to the species, because we've forgotten or ignored the news Mr. MacNeil here makes urgent all over again.

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