A successful first novel first words of successful novelists

February 07, 1994|By Margaret Langstaff

DECORATIONS IN A RUINED CEMETERY. By John Gregory Brown. Houghton Mifflin. 244 pages. $19.95.

I WISH more people today would attempt books like this one, novels that take on the big questions, the eternal verities, and, without pretense and a whole lot of claptrap, address the difficulty of finding meaning and significance in life.

For this is the stuff of which classics are made and what literature, certainly, is all about. That John Gregory Brown, a Columbia resident and graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, had the nerve to square off before such issues in his first novel is by itself laudable. The fact that he wrote a fine story with believable, memorable characters in the process is reason for applause.

Mr. Brown, only 33, writes out of the Southern tradition in fiction, and is midway, in terms of depth and accessibility, between Faulkner and Walker Percy (sort of a Lite-Faulkner or a Percy au jus.) Race, family, heritage, faith, good and evil are the obsessions in question, and the plot turns on critical choices having to do with one's understanding of the difference between virtuous behavior and cowardice, and one's courage to do the right thing. More readable than Faulkner, less comedic than Percy, Mr. Brown is nonetheless in their direct line of descent, their natural heir, without any obvious imitation.

"Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery" concerns the Eagen family of New Orleans and its immediate vicinity, Irish Catholics whose lineage is made more colorful, if not more difficult, by containing within it a black matriarch who mysteriously, in midlife, disappears, leaving her husband and small son to continue their lives without her. The legacy of this racial intermarriage and the mystery of Molly Moore Eagen's disappearance -- unsolved until the book's final pages -- haunt and twist the lives of three generations of Eagens.

Though the central narrator is Lowell Henry Eagen's granddaughter Meredith, the story is told through the three alternating voices of Meredith, her step-mother Catherine and Eagen's black servant of 40 years, the elderly Murphy Warrington, all of whom come at the same sequence of events from different angles and interpretations.

Patriarch Eagen, a devoutly religious Irish immigrant, had set things in motion by choosing as a wife a woman of mixed blood, the comely spirited and very light-skinned Molly Moore, and bringing her to his new home in the deep South, Mandeville, La. Grandfather Eagen was a good and saintly man who maintained the difference between black and white "was not an issue." In practice, of course, it was, and his more worldly descendants were left to grapple with the fact that they carried black blood in their veins while for all intents and purposes they lived the privileged life of whites.

A quiet unprepossessing man who made garden statuary of the saints and Christ for a living, Eagen bequeathed to subsequent generations not only an impossible model of behavior, but also a cursed constitutional sensitivity to moral questions, including an extreme sense of responsibility and a penchant for soul-searching. Eagen's son, Dr. Thomas Eagen, orthopedist, shapes this legacy into a professional life of caring for the poor and destitute and a private life of trying to reconcile his father's surreal goodness with his mother's apparently heartless abandonment so many years ago. Meredith and her twin brother Lowell inherit this thorny situation through their father who, as inexplicably as his own mother had left him, decamps on his second wife Catherine, the only mother Meredith and Lowell have ever known, taking the kids with him. As Meredith says early in the story, "It's complicated."

But it's also very real and credible just because it is so messy.

The story is rife with miscues and misunderstandings, and an almost consistent misreading by the narrators of the prima facie evidence concerning everyone else's decisions and motives, and in this regard the choice of multiple points of view in relating the events is both inspired and apt. None of the voices is completely reliable, given everyone's prejudices and predilections, and for most of the book all three have only partial information on which to base their decisions and judgments. Ultimately it is Meredith's understanding of things, and what she does with it, in which we are interested, for she is the contemporary representative of the Eagen line.

The story is a very moving one, and sorrowful because so ordinary and so familiar. It's about the search for something to believe in, a lifelong effort, if I read this writer right, and what we inherit from our forebears and what we are to make of it. The characters are tormented by garden-variety suspicion, deceit, betrayal, adultery, shame and guilt, and know fleeting moments of faith, hope and love. The struggle that ensues is not glorified as heroic or apocalyptic; it is rendered in a quiet heartfelt way that lends it universality.

The refreshing thing about the book, in addition to the timelessness of the situation the characters find themselves in, is that implicit in their struggle is the assumption that all the effort is worth it, that there are such absolutes as right and wrong, and that locating oneself in this common grid of guilt and forgiveness is incumbent, part and parcel, of finding out who you are. In a word, redemption.

Margaret Langstaff is writing a book about the spiritual dimension of work. She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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