THE MURDER of an Atlantic City 7-Eleven store owner might have been an outrageous basis for a teen-age novel a few years ago. But today the idea--think of all those brief and matter-of-fact stories in the newspaper--seems almost commonplace. We read that somebody is shot and dies, that he had a family, that the unknown assailant or assailants escaped with $50 in cash (which is what happens in Tiger Eyes, Judy Blume's latest book), and we finish our coffee or put out the cat and go on with our lives.
"Newspapers are very big on facts, I think," muses Davis (Davey) Wexler, the 15-year-old daughter left behind after her father was shot in the chest. "But not on feelings. Nobody writes about how it feels when your father is murdered."
Judy Blume does. And even if your father hasn't been murdered, even if you're no longer 15, and even if you'd rather think about something else, she puts you inside that girl: a luminous-eyed (thus the title) brownette, built like a swimmer, at once achingly vulnerable, funny and tough. In the proper cadence of grief--paralysis, anger, catharsis, gradual acceptance--you know how it feels, slowly, excruciatingly, over a school year's time. And maybe that's why kids like Blume's writing so much. You can cry with a friend, and then when you can't stand any more, she'll poke you in the ribs with a joke. Blume's often cynical, staccato style works splendidly as the voice of a child, who does not yet know enough to round out--and even forgive--adult idiocies.
Because Davey . . . er, Blume . . . talks to us in such a taut and dreamlike way, giving us images bit by bit, you'll keep reading to piece together the facts. For example, you'll know she had spinach pie the night her father died but you'll only get hints for a long time about where she was.
Davey's real thoughts come to the surface--as if from a very savvy teen-ager's diary--in the midst of some terrible ironies. The most overt is that Davey, her mother and 7-year-old brother are struggling to come to grips with a decimating, anonymous violence while seeking security in Los Alamos (The Atomic City). They've gone to live there temporarily with Uncle Walter, a physicist "thinking up new ways,'' as Davey says, "to kill people," and Aunt Bitsy, who leads bomb museum tours and is inclined toward saying things like, "She made her bed, now let her lie in it."
Davey, with the acute eye of the young, is disdainfully aware of the hypocrisy of, among other things, a middle class which designs bombs during the week and worships on Sundays. "There are more churches in Los Alamos than I have ever seen anywhere . . . I don't know if it's because scientists pray more than other people, or what. Maybe they have more guilt and fear."
She is lectured by her uncle, in one wrenching scene, about the trappings of a "better man," a definition which her father--a high-school graduate who sketched family portraits and listened to classical music in his 7-Eleven--does not fit. Her father, she knows, may have housed his family above the store, but he paid attention to them, and she longs for the feel of his hand smoothing the hair away from her face. She meets a girl whose father's success has won them a mansion, but he hasn't noticed that his daughter is drunk all the time.
In Los Alamos the people with whom Davey, white and part Jewish, finds the most comfort are a well-educated and sensitive Hispanic boy named Wolf--assumed by Aunt Bitsy to be a maintenance man--and his father, who although dying was "full of life and full of love."
Blume, the best-selling author of children's fiction in the country, touches lightly on most teen-age issues: misunderstandings with adults, drinking, drugs, dating, a girl's crushes and conflicts about depending on a boyfriend. As for sex, there's only, parents might be relieved to know, some heavy necking (if kids still call it that).
What parents might find more disturbing is the realization that it's the little, special things about themselves that their children will remember and that will carry them through the toughest adversity. Davey's father had a warm and homey ritual--which I won't give away here--but her reenactment of it is one of the most poignant and healing scenes in the book.
Judy Blume's Blubber provoked some controversy in Montgomery and Fairfax counties last year because some parents and school book review boards saw it as being cruel to fat children without, as one parent said, any "moral tone" from an adult or another child.
There's no hit-them-in-the-head moralizing in Tiger Eyes either, probably another reason why kids like Blume. Davey does, however, remind them subtly of their own good sense and remarkable resiliency. "Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them," she says. "How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives."
In one haunting passage, Davey insists on going alone to a canyon near Los Alamos. She descends to the bottom and cries out for her father. She's heard her own voice, and can then begin her ascent."