"A SUMMARY OF ONES'S life is meaningless," says Peter Warden, the 50-year-old narrator of this lyrical, affecting novel. The story of his life - composed in a tree house built for a son who has been killed, and addressed to his wife, Ann, as "perhaps the oddest love letters a man ever wrote" - is certainly no summary. It is collaboration of memory and imagination, a risky search for meaning that leads Peter to the sources of his deepest intuitions.
Peter has been treed by a "visionary experience" that occurred while his mother was dying. "For a moment," he writes, "I got beyond my precious self and knew for a blessed interval a happiness so intense my whole previous life seemed but a preparation for it." The design of his autobiography is to understand, and to communicate to his wife, "that moment of revelation." He is apologetic about his vocabulary - "I am not . . . a true mystic," he says - and he knows that a grown man has no business spending a summer in a tree house; still he refuses to regard his experience as a "disturbance" or his withdrawal as a "breakdown." No matter how foolish or clumsy he may seem, Peter is determined to communicate what he can of his moment of ecstasy: "We do have to take a certain responsibility for our own visions, I think."
The first part of Peter's story, "Nature," is a dreamlike evocation of a childhood on an island in Lake Erie. Peter's prose (McConkey's prose, I might as well say; McConkey does not cast a singly ironic shadow in this novel) is enchanting. Peter enjoys, literally, a Wordsworthian childhood; he has as much difficulty as Wordsworth did in maintaining a sense of self distinct from nature. He records a recurrent sensation in which he felt as if his soul - and he had no doubt that he had one - receded from his and gazed down upon it, "a tiny, unfamiliar boy sitting on rocks with his bony knees embraced in spindly arms."
In the tree house, Peter hopes to recover that transcendent selflessness, for he believes that it will provide an explanation for his moment of vision. He finds , however, that he has "left out people," and in the second section of his story, "My Parent," he imagines, in full and tender detail, the most intimate night of his parent's lives, the night of his own conception. Moving, loving, chaste, the scene demonstrates - to Peter and to the reader - how the gift of imagination can lead to forgiving knowledge, and Peter knows how much he has needed to forgive the father who deserted him and his mother.
This section also contains the narrative of his mother's death and a description of his vision, but even this, Peter learns, is not enough. He must still discover how his own "self-deceptions and betrayals lay behind the insight" he has been granted, and so, in the final section of the novel, "Myself," he describes his two marriages, his career as a newspaper publisher in a small town in Kentucky, and the death of the son for whom he built the tree house. The memory of the accident and of the terrible dreams that followed bring Peter to his most bitter confession: that he has loved others in order to be able to love his "miserable self." Then, having confessed, he declares himself "as ready as I will ever be to tell, one last time, what I felt, what I knew, when my mother died."
The novel's themes and images coalesce in this final telling of his vision:
I became a vapor on the receding dome that was the evening sky and which was moving with ever-increasing speed outward to the vast freedom that held no distinction, no differences, no disturbances, no individual consciousness with its guity and prideful awareness of self against everything that was other; the freedom that was blessed void, blessed silence. I was separate from the trifling body far beneath me . . .
Like St. Augustine, whose confessions he has been reading, Peter has experienced a beatific moment in which all individual differences have been stripped away, but Peter is no saint. He is not even, despite his language, a believer. His vision is explicity secular, and he offers memory - which he calls "our impulse toward a union our conscious intelligence cannot achieve" - as a replacement for religion. Having experienced that union, having now accounted for it as fully as he can, Peter is ready to descend from the tree house and return to the "noisy and imperfect" world.
Can we believe this? It's tempting not to. It's tempting to ignore Peter's warning and to regard his revelation not as a spiritual insight but as a psychological disturbance, his life story not as an exercise of self-knowledge but an effort to sublimate his guilt. He is, after all, most elated when he is relieved of the obligation to love. He loves his son in memory, his parents in imagination, his wife at a distance; there is no evidence in the novel that he can love an actual, present human being.
That is the worst that can be said of Peter Warden, but it does not taint the beauty of this novel and it need not undermine the truth of Peter's vision. He exile in the tree house is a voyage into solitude, the voyage, as E.M. Forster said, for which the soul is fashioned. His vision touches upon mysteries larger than the mysteries of personality and identity, and it illuminates this matter of love - which, as McConkey emphasizes, depends upon individual identities - with passionate serenity. That is the paradox at the heart of this fine novel.