Fast solutions after storm in parody of modern life

August 21, 1994|By Rebecca Warburton Boylan

In "Starcarbon," as in her National Book Award-winning "Victory Over Japan and her "Net of Jewels," Ellen Gilchrist offers us the voice of the modern world. Her perspective and tone are comic, always ready to resume the minimalist view when her characters come close to ruining their own or others' lives.

"Starcarbon" continues the story of the Hand family. The characters are parodies of 1990s losers, consumed by immediate need but willing to struggle.

There is Helen, the smothered mother who leaves her husband and five children, only to seek pregnancy and marriage with another man. Then there is Olivia, the long-lost, half-American-Indian daughter of Daniel, the family alcoholic. Olivia is kept alive by spending her father's money on a therapist, whose own passion for her cheats her of advice to marry Bobby Tree.

Bobby, Olivia's American-Indian grandparents and her aunt are the novel's true heroes. They do not pretend to be more or less than they are. They genuinely desire and work to attain the best for those they love, even if such goals are hard for them to appreciate.

While Ms. Gilchrist's gently comic tone is refreshing in its ability to differ from didactic judgment, it also leaves the reader aloof from the characters. This is in part because the story travels along, almost to the end, laden with the baggage of attempted murder, alcoholism, racial prejudice, drug addiction, prison sentences, sex without love, fear of commitment because of prior abandonment, and even a life-threatening tornado. As suddenly as the funnel cloud passes, the characters are served a forced and abrupt wrap-up of all these problems.

Of course, to remain true to the hard-nosed outlook of today's man and woman, these solutions are minimalist. Ms. Gilchrist shouldn't use a novel to preach at us, but neither should she merely imitate life without offering some reflection on the cause and effect of our greediness for fulfillment as a given right and not as an earned reward.

We're amazed by an alcoholic playboy who suddenly agrees to instant marriage at the same time he cheerfully lets go of the two daughters he's been suffocating with gifts of money and affection. We wonder at a second pair of lovers, Zach and Georgia, who decide they will continue to humiliate each other with destructive and amateur psychoanalysis, even as they agree to stay together for physical intimacy. Such need is more important than the fact that Zach's twin sons tried to murder Georgia (even though they hate their own mother).

On the other hand, Ms. Gilchrist is capable of depth, too, when she is less interested in parodying modern man and woman. One example of this is her title, which she consistently reveals throughout her novel. "Starcarbon" defines the dual nature in all humans and their lives; the dreams that intoxicate, sometimes leading and sometimes blinding, and the hard realities that are visible and dependable but also confusing and limiting.

Ms. Gilchrist is also most gentle with those who have gone astray for the right reasons. Bobby Tree's father, a smart and kind man, has given in to the weakness of some easy money by dealing drugs. When a fellow prisoner shoots himself, Bud Tree is given parole.

On the bus ride home in the midst of a tornado, Bud observes, "There's nothing but flat land from here to Tulsa. What a country. [Worst] weather in the United States, but what can you do? It's where I live."

Bud Tree offers the complex dichotomy of accepting the inevitable while still leading with the will. If only Ms. Gilchrist had struggled with this conflict instead of dramatizing what we already know.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in the Washington area.

Title: "Starcarbon"

Author: Ellen Gilchrist

Publisher: Little, Brown

Length, price: 306 pages, $22.95

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