'Black lagoon': the edge of insanity

August 09, 1998|By Jan Winburn | Jan Winburn,SUN STAFF

"My Sister from the Black Lagoon: A Novel of My Life," by Laurie Fox. Simon and Schuster. 336 pages. $23. Lorna lives in a nuthouse - and that's precisely the word she, too, would choose to describe her family home. Because Lorna, the narrator in Laurie Fox's autobiographical novel "My Sister from the Black Lagoon," is anything but PC. Call her AH and SF - achingly honest and surprisingly funny - in this heart-rending account of growing up with a sister who is mentally ill.

In short chapters framing her life from age 6 to 20, Lorna Person teaches us what it is to be the "other child" in a household swamped by the needs of a near-feral youngster diagnosed, alternately, as schizophrenic and autistic.

"I was born into a mentally ill family," Lorna's story begins. "My sister was the officially crazy one, but really we were all nuts." With image-rich prose and arresting detail, the writer creates shivers of horror and fits of laughter at the predicaments and observations of her main character.

At first, Lorna tries to hide what she feels about her sister Lonnie: "I made an art out of normalcy: composure, logic, balance. But I didn't fool anybody, because my chewed-up nails looked as grim as my sister's face."

Chapter by chapter, as Lorna grows up, we see the toll: At 13, she already has suffered a litany of sorrows: "Watching the neighbor children stone my sister; watching my sister make a monster of herself by brutally chopping off her hair; watching myself become a shy, torutured girl who wouldn't cross the street if anyone within blocks was looking; watching TV as if my life depended on it; and finally, watching my parents do nothing about any of this."

It goes almost without saying that Lorna and Lonnie's parents are complete failures in their responsibilities. But Fox is neither mawkish nor particularly angry on this point. The foibles of both mother and father are simply drawn. It is entirely to Lorna's credit that she can eventually find her own kind of freedom from what she calls "The Lonnie Show," but not before nearly becoming a second act to insanity.

For the most part, Fox's character is extremely likable - her experiences both poignant and entertaining. But she occasionally slips into a kind of tedious accounting of her life, one rendered with an immature voice that can grate on the reader. At those times, one feels much like the parent who is fed up to here with all the whining.

But it's all a part of growing up - even the whining. And it is rewarding to watch as Lorna discovers the most profound truths about self-identity, about the transforming power of the imagination, and the healing power of acceptance.

In the end, this first novel and its strong narrator force a serious reconsideration of life's most god-awful experiences. For Lorna considers herself to have been "immutably shaped and pummeled and informed by Lonnie the Wild One." Though life's worst and best moments are the same for her - living in her family's private nuthouse - she ultimately likes what she sees in herself.

And so will her readers

Jan Winburn is The Sun's assistant managing editor for enterprise.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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