BOOK REVIEW / Burning memories of Oregon: 'Wrongful Deaths' -William Wharton: Granta, 14.99 pounds

Click to follow
THE novelist and painter William Wharton has written a strange book. In order to approach it without prejudice readers need to divest themselves of qualms about its mode and tone. The mode is autobiography cum novel cum courtroom drama cum ecogladiatorial contest cum catharsis. The tone, at first hearing, is naturalistic American domestic.

The book's first seed was provided by a traffic accident that took place on interstate Highway 5 in Oregon on 3 August 1988. Forty vehicles piled together, their drivers blinded by the smoke caused by the outmoded but profitable practice of field burning. Eighty-seven people were hurt, seven dead. Among the dead were William Wharton's daughter Kate, her husband and their two infant daughters. Kate's young son by her first marriage was not with his family when they were killed.

There is no dramatising such events. For those they leave behind, they seem to be overlaid in the daily way by life led, but their effect and memory strengthen with passing time. It is up to the living to find a way of bearing the sentence. People take different cures. William Wharton maintains, as he draws to the close of the book, that his motive for writing it was not therapeutic but crusading; he wanted to outlaw the burning of fields by a few rich Oregon farmers.

Certainly, activity can defer pain. Certainly, the law is exhaustingly preoccupying. But Wharton is never unfaithful to his pain. He simply admits early on the unbearable truth that life goes on. This book may have been published as therapy-literature, but it will stay around as something more impressive than that. Wharton, who has lived most of his creative life outside America, notably in France, in the hope of bringing up his four children beyond the influence of the worst excesses of the American way, has written an encomium to what is sanest in America and an indictment of what is most absurd.

After its enigmatic foreshadowing foreword, the book begins 'in the voice of Kate'. There are bouts of stiffness and even of paternal self-importance, for instance, when Wharton teaches his child how to stay off drugs with high- quality dope kept on a special shelf. But this doesn't matter. In a sense the disciplined hedonist he reveals himself to be is already heroically unAmerican as well as ineradicably, movingly, American. Anyhow, this part of the book is vindicated by its account of Kate's eventual happiness in love. This is not easy for a father to write; the only other example I can think of is in The Blood of the Lamb by Peter de Vries. This is up to the standard of that. The style is no style, carpentry all visible, very hard to do.

The crash itself was followed by a gap. Wharton and his wife Rosemary did not learn about it till hours afterwards. Already we feel the massive size of the United States, its many component states and immiscible mores. The account of shock in a close but dispersed family is as painful as watching a crash in slow motion. Each member of the family took a different way of eating pain. Rosemary told herself her daughter was in another country with her husband and babies. She reckoned she'd be able to keep this up for five years or so. Wharton took a terrific scunner to field burning. He photographed his melted family in the morgue; later he sent the pictures to the Governor of Oregon, whose reply contained the overstated formula 'I share your loss and anguish'. How cheap politicians' words are.

Soon it became clear that, as happens in America, an orgy of litigation would begin, including a lawsuit against the dead by the field-burning farmer. Wharton was visited by the souls of his son-in-law and daughter, who told him to fight it all the way. No whimsy or special pleading occur in the account of this visit, which is not the only such in the book. For two years Wharton crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, making depositions (the word has a tragic history of its own) and becoming familiar with the grotesque tergiversations of the law. At one point he was encouraged to sue the estate of his immolated son-in-law.

The conclusion of the book is intelligently equivocal, stoic, lighthearted and despairing: perhaps this hard death has rescued his dead family from some longer hell. I could not have been more resistant to the idea of this book. I anticipated an uneasy mix of self- therapy and exploitation. In fact the book's insistence on ordinary endurance, its enumeration of meals and joggings and ball games, from the pen of a man quite at home with the more sceptical world of letters, the cooler demeanour of Europe, hits hard. The ranked lawyers are sure at one point that Wharton is a flake. Their concern is with 'how much money I didn't earn during the greater part of my life'.

For that dryness, never mind his pain that cannot leave him, the reader must forgive the odd lapse into sentiment.