LIKE THE steam railroad, the extended family is undergoing a sentimental vogue, and for much the same reasons. Both have almost disappeared, and we find it easy to forget their disadvantages. Locomotive travel had its romance, to be sure, but it was also slow, rough, and dirty; the old-time family, rooted in one spot and one way of life, offered certainty and love, but also a quiet generational brutality. The older members, gathering to themselves property and moral authority, bent and stifled the younger; the younger, in the end, won the bleak triumph of sheer replacement.
Nicholas Delbanco, a British-born novelist now living in Vermont, has depicted this underside of family life in Possession (1977) and now Wherbrookes , the first two volumes of a trilogy about the waning days of a wealthy New England family. At the center of the story is Juday Sherbrooke, a jehovah-like patriarch whose "sense of self was rooted like the maples back beyond the carriage house-it would go as far as wind would take it, or seeds on the seat of the carriage, but insentient, insensate, not in conscious quest." In Possession , Judah used trickery to entice home his still-young wife, Maggie, who had left him years before. In the present book, Juday is dead, but his spirit remains strong enough to lure his estranged son, Ian, into returning home, seemingly for good.
Besides the hovering ghost of Juday, Sherbrookes has many other elements of gothic romance: an ancient mansion, a family curse, an unbreakable will, a mysterious pregnancy, and a moonlight suicide. Certainly, it seems to me that Sherbrookes does not operate like realistic novel-by means of character, incident, or plot. Many of the characters are blanks; this is particularly true of Ian Sherbrooke, who seems at first almost like an empty cell awaiting the entry of a new genetic core, the spirit of his dead father. The book's movement is more in the fasion of a long poem, or a series of vibrant images held in rigid frames. There is a moment late in the book when maggie, whoe lusty ways in youth had earned her the title of "old Sherbrooke's bare-naked wife," watches unobserved as her son's lover walks naked across a field, and recognizes the arrival of her own replacement, "a brown-haired image of herself when young, the same straight back, thin hips, and long-legged gait." It is not a likely moment, or even a plausible one, but it is not an image I will soon forget.
Delbanco's prose is consciously poetic as well-alliterative, allusive, determinedly elegant. He is at his best when rendering the Vermont landscape, or when detailing the steps of building a house. But in much of the rest of the book, the effort expended on fine prose makes the story tough going. Like a horse keeping an unfamiliar gait, Delbanco is prone to missteps which reduce him to a lumbering walk: "It appeared to snow, but the constellations were manifest, and therefore she knew it the wind, not sky, that engendered the snow. She pondered the distinction between the wind and sky."
In addition, he has chosen to tell novels in the narrative present. In the hands of a supple stylis-Wright Morris comes to mind-this device can give a story a seductive immediacy, narrowing the distance between reader and character. But, as used by Delbanco, it involves the reader in a confusion of tenses, and by the time he has finished sorting out "he is," "they would" "she had," and "he did," reader and narrative are barely within hailing distance. And, finally, Delbanco has a fatal weakness for cliches, balancing them in his characters' minds like teetering rocks: "Six of one, he argues, since he's in the neighborhood; half a dozen of the other," or "You take, Maggie knew, a stitch in time."
The result is a promising novel, rich in myth and allusion, gone stale, gray-toned, and ponderous. One can admire Delbanco's learning and respect his effort; but, when the encounter is over, we are left with a weary, disappointed feeling of loss.