French verbs and the face of Christ

Emma Goldman reviews a literary trio of alienation and dissipation
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Three new first novels all explore, in different ways, the theme of alienation, the feeling of being cut off from life. In American Studies by Mark Merlis (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99) 62-year-old Reeve lies in hospital, after being beaten up in his apartment by a hustler. He parallels his downfall - his landlord is evicting him for the noise he made during the attack - with that of his old college mentor Tom Slater, a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunt. Through the ensuing story two homosexual "opposites" are explored: the slut and the ascetic, both of whom chase the same romantic, unattainable ideal, a love story with a fairytale ending stolen from the heterosexual world. This is the impetus for every short-lived relationship in the book, every one night stand; in the reasons for it lie the pain at the heart of the book.

In a telling early sexual encounter half a century before, Reeve's lover- to-be leads him through one of the farm sheds at night, to "a pile of rags: our marriage bed." The sanctity brought to mind by the symbol of the wedding night gives what follows an additional starkness. Reeve has dreamed of being the boy's "princess", of the boy, in turn, being his "knight". Afterwards, however, in the darkness, shame prevails. His lover looks at him "in evident distaste" and tells him that that he "mustn't tell anyone." But then something happens: in a sudden, surprising moment, the light of humanity breaks through.

Merlis tells a harsh tale and, though the childlike hopes of the dreamer never die, further encounters confirm a neurotic state: high romance locked in a partnership with dread. Merlis mirrors the outcast's position in the view from Reeve's hospital window: "a dismal vista of decaying tenements and forsaken churches...". The America of Reeve's lifetime, hating the homosexual, has largely made the homosexual hate himself.

Yet there are good relationships here too, and surprising ones: kindness and resilience endure, and although Reeve will not experience the same kind of tragedy as Tom, solidarity is to be found in unexpected quarters. This is a serious and haunting novel, deftly handled and written with poignant understatement. Merlis draws a vivid picture of a shameful period in American history.

Related by 16-year-old Grace Jones and set in a convent school in Ireland, Martina Evans's Midnight Feast (Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 14.99) reveals what it is to be a troubled adolescent girl. Boys, unknown quantities, are darkly idealised, feared and given the most stomach-churning qualities. No fantasy is too macabre for the narrator and the relish with which she describes a putative murderer hints that expressed dreads are, in reality, suppressed longings. The book powerfully captures the forceful nature of incipient sexuality - unrecognised and therefore unacknowledged - which can run amok in violent, melodramatic imaginings.

Evans knows that actual danger to a teenager's mind and body often goes unnoticed at any meaningful level. Emaciation is a hallowed state and the results, at first predictable and then horrific, are dismissed by emotional ignorance. The first and second-year girls, presented en masse and mostly off-stage, squeak in unison like the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz but, more usefully, provide a sort of unseen Greek chorus. They chant their French verbs through the classroom walls and are heard throwing up in the school lavatories - the latter activity is a lonely one, accompanied by the sound of the wind whistling down the cold, stone corridors.

Evans, a published poet, is a humorous and lyrical writer who has a Wellsian nose for a pithy description ("She looked like the sort of woman who ought to have a cigarette hanging out of her mouth"). Her first novel takes us inside the friendships - to all intents and purposes love affairs - between adolescent girls, but her talent lies in dialogue; nuns, schoolgirls, layabout teenage boys who hang around the town are all brought to instant life. The affection and sorrow that underpin this story must spring from the author's genuine love for her characters.

In The Light of the Body by Stephen Dunn (Duckworth, pounds 14.99), the sense of exile is self-imposed. The 20-something, male narrator, having had a vision of the Face of Christ while working on the returns desk of the Public Library, elects to join a modern monastery. The resulting story combines an account of his time there with intermittent childhood flashbacks. Dunn's language, gentle as an April shower, perfectly matches the vernal setting and it takes a while before it dawns upon the reader that the name of his game is satire. The comic exchanges and courteous power battles among the monks are reminiscent of the sitcom, Dad's Army.

But the real, psychological reasons why the narrator joined the monastery are left unclear and the most successful characters in the book are the other members of his family: the radical, "gender-fuck" sister; the featherbrained mother; the "innocent dupe" of an army brother, and the father who, wordlessly staring at the television, has given up any chance of ever being able to understand his offspring. These scenes are the most alive in the book - within them lies the potential for another story.