T.C. Boyle's 'Riven Rock': color, variety

March 15, 1998|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Riven Rock," by T.C. Boyle. Viking. 466 pages. $24.95.

In his seventh novel, "Riven Rock," T. Coraghessan Boyle brings his hair-raising dark humor and virtuoso verbal skills to bear on a minor figure out of American industrial history. Stanley McCormick, heir to father Cyrus' harvester fortune and to a major case of misogynistic schizophrenia, lives in lifelong quarantine from women. Meanwhile his still unravished bride, ne Katherine Dexter, waits in grim devotion for his recovery.

Ironically, these characters who once existed in the flesh are Boyle's most bloodless. As the novel interweaves the story of Stanley's 30-year "rest" with the earlier history of the couple's courtship, we lose all but voyeuristic interest in these two. Stanley devolves into a bundle of sensational symptoms, Katherine the crusading suffragette into a parcel of dull virtues.

This failure to humanize the privileged has taken sharper form in Boyle's work. In some short stories and his last novel, "The Tortilla Curtain" (1995), affluent characters come in for satirical treatment of the savage and premeditated variety. Here, Boyle's approach is gentler, his intentions good - but his pen rallies noticeably when it comes to depicting Stanley's freakish behavior. And it can slow to a lazy crawl for its leading lady, as in this banal shot at capturing her emotional condition: "All her life Katherine Dexter had been disappointed in men."

The real life in this novel is elsewhere. After attacking the wife he worships, Stanley is spirited away to the family estate in California (Riven Rock), where a parade of psychiatrists variously, sometimes hilariously, leads the quest for a cure. Traveling from Boston in Stanley's entourage is a young male nurse seeped in dreams of fairer fortune in the Golden State.

At some moments the pugnacious but impressionable Eddie O'Kane seems something that looked into a funhouse mirror to )) produce Stanley McCormick. Married too young, he experiences and acts on the full range of emotional reactions to women, from helpless lust to helpless tenderness to an anger that can vent itself in violence, although it remains a pale version of Stanley's rage.

The only character who learns and grows through the novel, Eddie sacrifices much but finally manages to attain what Stanley and Katherine never can. Too bad his story plays second fiddle to the arid saga of their star-crossed love.

Fortunately, Boyle is such a good writer that you don't need to care deeply about the McCormicks in order to enjoy "Riven Rock." Addicted to metaphors, he has a stunner for every description. Pedestrians under umbrellas? "Like so many wilted toadstools." The scar on a man's face? "Like a trail of dried spittle or the glistening track a slug leaves on the pavement, silvery and ever so faintly luminescent." Typically, touchingly, Boyle wears his love of language on his sleeve.

Americana is another salutary passion with Boyle. However flat some of the characters within, the material world depicted here, from motorcar culture to speakeasies, shines forth in color and variety. With so many of the pieces in place, "Riven Rock" frustrates, but instills hope. If Boyle can write this accomplished a novel with an Eddie O'Kane at its center rather than a Stanley McCormick, it might well be a great American novel.

Laura Demanski has worked for Simon and Schuster and the University of Chicago Press. She is writing a doctoral dissertation on Victorian fiction.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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