Murder Most Promising
by Robert Wexelblatt

  • Beverly Coyle, Taken In. New York: Viking Press, 1998. 305pp. $24.95 (cloth).
  • Nadine Gordimer, The House Gun. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 294pp. $24.00 (cloth).

Beverly Coyle and Nadine Gordimer have written superb new novels about murder, but neither is a murder mystery. Set in North Florida and South Africa respectively, each tells with intelligent, irresistible sympathy how self-consciously decent middle-class families are devastated by, struggle to comprehend, and begin to recuperate from violence. Coyle conducts us ever more deeply into the inner lives of her characters, individuating and isolating them from their townsfolk, work and school, while Gordimer correlates the intimate suffering of her characters to the public and political. Both novelists disclose unexpected truths about families, sex, class, religion, and ethics, generating significance even beyond what their books convey to societies beset by violence and the ready accessibility of guns. These novels about murder are not concerned with the superficial question of who did it; they are tales of response and reflection rather than suspense, stories that ask how and why the irremediable can invade apparently secure lives and what humanity can be built on the wreckage.

The disaster at the center of Taken In is the fatal shooting of Susan Robb, wife, mother, high school teacher, love-object. She and her husband, Malcolm, admissions director for a small college, have two children: Matt, a high-school senior who has been eccentrically religious since he was eleven and may be a saint; and Gretchen, fifteen, stage-struck, quick-witted. Matt's religiosity is a mystery and an anxiety to his parents; his father fears that he has become a fundamentalist or will join some cult. As a child Matt insisted on giving away all the money he could and also his clothing, saving only the one coat allowed by the Bible. The boy's indiscriminate compassion leads him to try to help a runaway girl, Angela Bert, entangling his family and a lonely neighbor, Oren Abel, with her and her druggy, sociopathic companion, Cooper Reece. Oren, in love with Susan who has told him to "be bold," decides to make a project of Angela. He gives her his house on condition that she not see Cooper. But Cooper shows up at once and, in a jealous rage, shoots Susan, runs off with Angela, and overdoses days later in a motel.

"Taken In" -- it can signify arrested, fooled, given a home. Coyle has chosen the title of this, her third novel, cleverly, for it means all of these but most of all the last. Strangely, redemption begins when Angela is taken in by the Robbs. Matt goes off to work at a camp for disturbed boys; Gretchen leaves school and Malcolm his job. Oren liberates himself by wearing a dress and works out his guilt by becoming part of the isolated extended family that, occupying two facing suburban houses, nourished by forgiveness and understanding, grows from the ruins on what was. Out of what goodness has inadvertently destroyed, goodness of another sort emerges, a transformingly generous and patient love.

At the start of the novel Malcolm Robb's biggest worry is what college his oddball son will be able to get into, or if the boy will go at all. He feels like the shoemaker whose child is barefoot. Will Matt even write the requisite application essay? Gretchen, at the start, looks like a version of the wisecracking teenager of the sit-coms. Oren Abel sits in his mansion immured in loneliness and shame for his father, a lawyer who stole from his clients and then killed himself. These conventional, constricted lives are shattered by an invasion of low-life. Susan Robb's death, a catastrophe that is the consequence of Matt's and Oren's charity, alters everything for everybody. By the end Coyle has led everyone into a miraculous new country.

The novel seems to have a concentrated action, a few characters in the foreground; in fact, Coyle imagines in detail more than we could ask. She gives us not just a family but a whole town, with its politics, history, disintegrating marriages; she gives us satire, sociology, religious and sexual speculation. The action ramifies, expands, touching and testing everyone who matters.

Coyle is wonderful at delineating character, not just her major ones, but even her walk-ons. For example, a social worker appears once and briefly only thirty pages from the end of the book, and yet we come to know her inside and out. There is never anything generic about Coyle's characters, nothing prefabricated or second-hand. And their range is astonishing: suburbanites, trailer trash, dopeheads, doctors, cops, waitresses, college boys, schoolchildren, toddlers. With the patience of the best novelists Coyle never hurries her plot but savors each development, knowing that the savoring can be of greater worth than the event.

Coyle writes so well of serious matters that her humor can sneak up on you. For example, of Oren's failed attempts with women, she writes: "The last time he'd tried anything physical, he'd been impotent, and the woman had gotten so hysterical about it (about herself) that none of it had seemed worth it to him anymore, especially now that there was cable."

Not the least of Coyle's virtues is the balance of attention afforded her characters. Many novelists telling this kind of story would focus on just the middle-class ones. Coyle bravely adopts a God-like point of view and is divinely even-handed. The reward is that her action becomes larger. It isn't the story of Matt's religiosity, Malcolm's grief, Oren's loneliness, Gretchen's maturing, or Angela's ruin and deliverance. Taken In is, in the best sense, an ensemble piece. Coyle gets us to care about all these people. We become as fascinated by the fifteen-year-old "throwaway" Angela as by Gretchen, the stage-struck honor student. We are permitted to know Susan Robb before she is killed so that her death is not merely the donnée of the book but shocks our feelings as much as her family's. Florida isn't the issue here, or violence, religious fervor, or class conflict. These are occasions, not points to be made. Coyle is not distracted by the exemplary potential of her story or the sensationalism of her plot; she is not out to declaim sociological pronouncements but to give us the particularity of her people, and so they absorb us. The fascination of this excellent novel lies in its characters' relationships, emotions, inward lives. These people are destroyed and humanized, screwed-up and deepened, ripped apart and exalted.

*

Apartheid is over and Nadine Gordimer still remains the most conscientious observer of South African society. She is not a writer to ignore the public implications of private actions or the corrosive effect of social disorder on private feeling and individual motives. Instead of writing directly of the hit-squads, rapes, muggings, and random killings that plague South Africa today, Gordimer has chosen to make of them a background for a story which at first appears to have no connection to social history.

Duncan Lindgard, a twenty-seven-year-old architect brought up to Catholic values by his insurance director father, Harald, and to secular humanism by his physician mother, Claudia, shoots and kills Carl Jespersen. Jespersen is a homosexual who shares a house with two other gays, while Duncan lives in an adjacent cottage with Natalie, a disturbed, self-destructive young woman he has taken on after saving her from an attempt to drown herself. The crime is brought about after Duncan discovered Jespersen, with whom he had a brief affair of his own, coupling with Natalie late one Friday night after a party. He shoots his victim on the following evening, shoots him on impulse with the gun of the title, the sort of gun so many South Africans keep on hand for self-protection, a "house gun," symbol of violence and insecurity, symbol also of the gender-bent relations in the household, occasion of turning the ephemeral into the irrevocable.

The novel focuses chiefly on the responses of Claudia and Harald, good bourgeois liberals who must be typical of many well-meaning white South Africans. Despite their sympathies, "neither had joined movements, protested, marched in open display, spoken out in defence of these convictions." They did not risk their comforts; theirs are the liberal ethics of the detached. "All their lives they must have believed -- defined -- morality as the master of passions. The controller. Whether this unconscious acceptance came from the teachings of God's word or from a principle of self-imposed restraint in rationalists." Harald's Christianity and Claudia's humanism agree: Thou shalt not kill. It is unthinkable that their son, so protected, civilized, well brought up, has killed.

The Lindgards have recently moved into a townhouse in a gated community. Not enough. Harald, we read, "presses the electronic gadget which lets them into their home but provides no refuge." Stories of middle-class self-criticism generally involve implosions, a breaching of the walls of security by the unintelligible.

South Africa is changing. Harald's company is trying to help arrange funding to house the homeless. The blacks on his board are no longer tokens. The Lindgards have the sense of falling -- first reluctantly, then gratefully -- into the hands of their son's defense lawyer, Hamilton Motsamai, a black man from "the Other Side." Motsamai had left the country, studied and practiced in England, looks like an African king, is suave and intelligent. He is "providential" and he does a good job. The Lindgards live "in a region of the country where the political ambition of a leader had led to killings that had become vendettas, fomented by him, a daily tally of deaths was as routine as a weather report; elsewhere, taxi drivers shot one another in rivalry over who would choose to ride with them, quarrels in discotheques were settled by the final curse-word of guns. State violence under the old, past regime had habituated its victims to it. People had forgotten there was any other way." Without halting her story, which is primarily the careful dissection of Harald and Claudia's responses, Gordimer interpolates little essays on race, ethics, religion, and the death penalty not as abstractions but as suddenly unmediated concerns for these people whose world is challenged, whose principles collapse into the simplicity of "Get him off."

The Lindgards learn not only that their son is capable of murder, but that he is bisexual, that their moral teachings appear not to have "taken," that they themselves lack the passion to kill, that they can resent their only child, that they can be isolated from their protective circle of friends. Even the decent, liberal Lindgards, perhaps as symbols of a class, must undergo destruction before reconstruction. So Harald, embarrassed, gives up his white congregation for a "cathedral among people from the streets. . . . taking. . . . his rightful place with those most bowed to misfortune. The truth of all this was that he and his wife belonged, now, to the other side of privilege. Neither whiteness, nor observance of the teachings of Father and Son, nor the pious respectability of liberalism, nor money, that had kept them in safety -- that other form of segregation -- could change their status." Only in ruins can foundations be clearly seen.

Gordimer gives us Duncan's trial in detail, providing all the data of inwardness absent from most legal fiction. As much of the truth comes out as can in a court of law, as much as professional advocates and an imaginative judge can ever illuminate. Justice is enacted and, as the Lindgards realize, is itself a sort of act.

For all this, morality has not been crushed, not even in the Lindgards' son. Duncan has been responsible, saving the neurotic Natalie, coping with her resentment of his doing so, accepting even her punishing promiscuity. But the relationship is sick. The moral anarchism of his twenty-something friends is ultimately not for him, an architect who even in prison draws up plans for the future. Violent disorder may be a phase. Gordimer quotes Hermann Broch on what may be going on with these young people in her country: ". . . . the transition from any value system to a new one must. . . . take its way through a generation destitute of any connection with either the old or the new system, a generation whose very detachment, whose almost insane indifference to the suffering of others, whose state of denudation of values proves an ethical and so an historical justification for the ruthless rejection, in times of revolution, of all that is humane. . ."

Out of the wreckage something humane emerges, something alive. Natalie gives birth to a son whose father could be either the murderer or his victim. In this way the fatal love triangle is forever fixed and, as Duncan muses at the end, life and death are brought together. Gordimer leaves us with this hard image of hope.

ROBERT WEXELBLATT teaches in the College of General Studies, Boston University, and is a widely published short-story writer and essayist.