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MR. SANDMAN
By Barbara Gowdy
Steerforth. 268 pp. $24

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Lies and Whispers

By Katherine Dunn
Sunday, March 30, 1997; Page X03

Some puritanical streak in many of us insists that art must be medicinal, glumly virtuous and difficult to swallow. Canadian Barbara Gowdy insolently explodes such constipated pretensions. Mr. Sandman, her third novel, cocks a snoot at conventions, both moral and literary, and is so brilliantly crafted and flat-out fun to read that she makes jubilant sinners of us all.

Gowdy's humor dwells not in one-liners, but in acute variations of tone and attitude. Her luminous, deceptively conversational style shuffles time frames and points of view so smoothly that her intricate narrative flows in molten simplicity. The deliberately mundane takes on magical qualities.

Gowdy's topic in Mr. Sandman is lies and the truth they are meant to conceal. The novel is a perfectly turned parable, but its characters are multidimensional humans, convincingly drawn by a wry and knowing eye that sees all of their frail goofiness and loves them, not despite but because of their flaws. This refreshingly mature approach analyzes the function and form of deceit, recognizing that the first and last victim of the lie is the liar and that, as in more public realms, the cover-up does more harm than the original crime.

Mr. Sandman is the story of the lying Canary clan, Doris and Gordon Canary and their three daughters. Gordon is the unassuming editor of gritty potboilers in a small publishing house. His talents are appreciated best by the hopeless, drunken writers whose stacks of unpublishable manuscripts are the footstools and end tables in the modest Canary home. Gordon loves his family "a great deal, protectively and sheepishly," and he lies awkwardly and painfully to protect them from their own peccadilloes as well as his. "The truth," he always says, "is just a version." This maxim, distorted in the pleasantly bovine mind of his eldest daughter, Sonja, becomes "The truth is just aversion," a heraldic motto for the entire factually challenged family.

Doris is a charming and versatile diva of prevarication. Wielding the skills of her failed acting career with a nimble imagination, the restless housewife creates a constantly evolving art form ranging from manipulative little fibs to grand-scenario whoppers. Lies are her tool for getting what she wants, from cash in a pinch to a shield from unpleasant consequences.

Marcy, the smart middle sister, has her own terrors and passions to disguise. If the eldest daughter, Sonja, is too simple to lie, she has secrets to nurture, and her contented misunderstanding of herself and everyone else forms a web of unreality more impenetrable than the conscious fibbery of others.

Yet this is an enchantingly loving family. They lie tenderly to each other and eagerly believe each other's lies. Only the youngest, Joan, never lies, if only because she was dropped on her head at birth and is mute. Depending on whose version one believes, she is brain-damaged or a supernatural reincarnation or a great mind choosing not to besmirch herself with the vile dangers of language. Whatever the case, she is utterly unlike any of the Canarys. She is bizarrely gifted and completely mysterious, a tiny, fastidious near-albino beauty in a dark, robustly homely brood. She is terrified of strangers, hypersensitive to light and sound. She spends her childhood hiding, reading, and listening in a closet.

Joan is not the family shame, but their greatest treasure, the focus of their bewildered adoration. Each member of the family confides in her, pouring their secrets into her gorgeous silence. The father sprawls on the floor with his head in her closet confessing the tortures of his miserably decent soul. The mother, Doris, shares her merrily plotted evasions for the bill collectors and reads poetic tidbits from her lovers' letters out loud. Dim, soft Sonja treats Joan to candy and whispers, while sharp Marcy claims she can read Joan's mind and translate her desires. When Joan displays her astounding talents, the Canarys' faith in her genius is joyously vindicated. When she starts work on her own creations, they struggle to help her although they have no notion of what she is doing or of how it will ultimately affect them all.

Around this familial nexus swirl the concealed individual lives. The lies become flags signaling what is most dear and most terrifying -- and the biggest lies are to conceal sexual identity and extracurricular escapades. These are not evil people. The worst they do is deny what they fear in themselves, that inner life they fear will be rejected by their loved ones, or by society at large.

In her descriptions of these hidden passions, Gowdy's lyric use of ordinary language takes on a sensuality so sympathetic that the reader is led inevitably to suspect that these propensities may not be the darker side of the Canary clan at all, but their radiant best.

Katherine Dunn is the author of "Geek Love."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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