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).
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.
-- 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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.