|Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews|
J. Robert Lennon
Granta, 1998 308pp
ISBN: 1 86207 202 7
"A plane crashed." This is an unusually bald and abrupt opening sentence and I found it a little disorientating. That, and the unfamiliar small-town Montana setting, meant that it took me a page or two before I felt comfortable with 'Paul', who is Robert Lennon's main character, and his life. It was a curious experience but one which did not last long, because Lennon's story has more to do with common human dilemmas, especially those surrounding love and death, than with any particular culture.
Lennon writes well and he has rare empathy with his assortment of characters, which allows him to convincingly portray their mixed reactions and emotions when sudden crisis and, for some, sudden bereavement affect their lives.
For Paul, who sees the plane crash, and for his wife, Anita, who briefly comforts a burned and dying boy, the crisis brings an end to their already fading marriage. This does not happen abruptly, like the crash, but more as a crystallisation of growing dissatisfaction and estrangement. Lennon charts the anger, sadness and regrets of a failed relationship compassionately and believably.
He is good, too, at reflecting the simple, shared, daily events which trigger grief after a loved-one's death, and the sense of isolation which can occur. Young Lars finds himself breaking the news of his girl-friend's death to her father and being abused for it. At the funeral, he watches the family he might have eventually have married into, but they have never met him and have no time for him. Only his good friend, Toth, can understand and share his grief.
Others who are affected by the crash have more bizarre and even seemingly impossible stories. Lennon makes these believable too.
Bernado, running away from problems and conflict in Italy to an unsuspecting son in Montana, miraculously survives the crash, disappears into the woods, and turns up as a secret food-thief in Anita's kitchen. He tells Paul and Anita nothing about who he really is or where he is from, but offers to repair the damage the falling plane-engine did to their house, and to re-build their shed. He has no past, no commitments, no future plans: it is as if he has been re-born - and it is a chance to reconsider and, perhaps, recreate his life.
Elderly Trixie, whose long-ago divorced husband was on his way to visit her after years apart, finds his ghost intruding into her life. It is a very solid ghost, who leaves his dishes on the table and his hand prints in the dust of her car's dashboard.
Lennon draws you briefly into the lives of these people and tells an absorbing story. Perhaps too many of his male characters have ghastly termagants of mothers who once exerted autocratic control over their sons' lives, but fortunately these appear only briefly in his characters' memories.
In all other respects, Lennon is a new writer whose work is well worth reading. And Granta, who have long had a reputation for publishing the best of new writing in their magazine, must be congratulated for keeping up their high standards in the books they are now choosing for publication.