THIS NOVEL is worth reading for its insults alone. Much of it takes place in the clannish Irish village of Kilgarret, where--abstinence being the only permissible birth-control method--the field of sibling rivalry can expand to near-geopolitical proportions. In this setting privacy is harder to maintain than prosperity, and the frustrated inhabitants cope with their confinement by lashing out at one another.
Some of the punchiest remarks are directed to and from Eamonn O'Connor, a mid-level brother in one of the town's leading families. His sister Maureen finally became engaged to Brendan Daly after a non-whirlwind courtship. "Their walking-out period had been considered long even by Kilgarret standards. Eammon had heard a joke about them; he heard that Brendan had finally plucked up courage to ask Maureen and he had said, 'Would you like to be buried with my people?' He had thought it was great, and he kept telling everyone, until his father had told him to shut his big ignorant mouth."
Not long afterward Eamonn receives another comeuppance. When he refuses to inscribe a birthday card to Elizabeth White, the English girl who boarded with the family during World War II, his mother excoriates him. " 'I buy the card, I post it, I remember the date. I'm asking you to put your great ham hand around a pen and write two lines and your thick, ignorant signature . . .' "
Eamonn bows beneath the assault and cranks up his ham hand. This is typical of male-female relationships in the novel. With rare exceptions the men are shallow, ineffectual, or both. The best of them remind one of John Leonard's remark about New York men, who "tend to be little boys, with wooden swords." The worst, Elizabeth's father, a man "who couldn't make up his own mind about what side of the cornflake bowl he should face towards him," is one of the most memorable zeroes in fiction. In contrast, Elizabeth and Aisling (pronounced Ashleen) O'Connor, best friends since sharing a room during the war, develop from winsome lasses into resolute, unorthodox women.
Maeve Binchy grew up in an Irish village herself and now divides her time between it and London, where she writes a column for The Irish Times. This is her first novel, but its narrative brio seems the work of a veteran. Only in the last section, which takes the two friends up to 1960 and a predictably failed marriage apiece, does Binchy's energy flag. By then so has the light implicit in the title, which refers to a Catholic devotional practice: Binchy holds out little hope that Elizabeth or Aisling will come across a man who measures up to her. Even so, with its barreling plot and clamorous characters, Light A Penny Candle is a lilting book. SO LONG, DADDY. By H.B. Gilmour. New- market. 375 pp. $14.95
SEVERAL CHARACTERS in So Long, Daddy are fatherless--some through death, some desertion. After discovering their common deprivation, they gang up on the rotten father in their midst: one David Fredericks, a philandering fashion photographer who abandoned his wife and two children 10 years before. Their mission is to instill fatherliness in him.
Fredericks now has his children on his hands because their mother (his ex-wife) has just died of cancer. In her will she stipulated that unless David takes care of the kids, he forfeits the elegant townhouse she's let him use all these years. Maddie, who is 12, and Jason, 10, have no previous memories of David. Their emotions vacillate between yearning for the father they've missed and resentment of his absence.
Through most of the book resentment prevails. David tries to schedule fatherhood in the same coldly efficient way that he schedules modeling sessions. Maddie and Jason convince themselves they've been thrust upon David to avenge their mother by cramping his sybaritic style. Ominously, Jason takes up target practice and manages to stash some bullets. The children's good angel is Naomi Rappaport, their mother's lawyer, and another one of the novel's fatherless characters, who operates on the premise that the three surviving Fredericks have been brought together so they can all grow up.
H.B. Gilmour, author of one previous novel and six other novelizations of screenplays (among them Saturday Night Fever and The Electric Horseman) is good with kids. Whenever Maddie and Jason are at center stage-- and especially when they're by themselves, stoking each other's hurts and fantasies--So long, Daddy is immersing.
Gilmour's adults are not so full-fledged. They tend to be interchangeably fashion- gaunt and lofty-cheeked (even the burly David has high cheekbones), and they seem to have taken a pledge to facilitate repartee. Not only do they wax witty and supply countless straight lines. They also critique each other's sallies. Of a conversation she had with David, Naomi says, "I can never classify the noise that occurs between us as direct communication. It always feels like monologues locking horns." "Very good," her interlocutor obliges. "I've never heard it better put."
The novel's climax arrives diminuendo, as Gilmour lets her omens fizzle out. Still, she has brought a pair of neglected children to life, and that is no mean feat. THIS FAMILY OF WOMEN. By Richard Peck. Delacorte. 393 pp. $14.95
AS THE TITLE SUGGESTS, men are also notable by their absence from This Family of Women. They dash off to prospect for gold, sign up for military service, or just wench and tipple, always leaving a wife or fianc,ee--and often a daughter as well--to fend for herself in a mannish, prudish world. But the women in this novel expect little from life and steel themselves to abandonment. One after another, from the California Gold Rush to the outbreak of World War II, they summon taciturn strength, flout public opinion, and prosper.
One woman in this line of mavericks becomes madam of a brothel, another the mistress of the Prince of Wales. A third opts for a mundane lot, only to be thwarted by her alcoholic husband, who beats her periodically and one day dangles her child from the second- floor landing. Given the opportunity to get rid of him with impunity, she hesitates only a moment.
Richard Peck, the author of Amanda/Miranda and a dozen other books, writes a parsimonious style that rises impressively to occasions not by revving itself up but by putting common words forward in striking arrangements. This is how he conveys the Indianness of a woman who was carried off by Apaches as an adolescent. "She set snares for jackrabbits and could skin her catch with three strokes, pulling pelt over the head in a final shriek of skin . . . She planted gardens where they'd never been and would never be again, and she stood silent before sunsets, hearing them almost."
And Peck is an adroit designer of fiction. In the last few pages of This Family of Women, Eve Waring, the royal mistress, breaks the spell of paternal absenteeism that has plagued her family, and the book's structure clicks into place. If the novel has a failing or two--cumulatively, the women seem too renegade for Victorian verisimilitude, and all six first-person narrators (including a male) sound exactly alike--they are subdued in its stylish clip. RUNNING TIME. By Gavin Lambert. Macmillan. 406 pp. $15.95
THE PROTAGONISTS of Running Time are Elva Kay and her daughter, Baby Jewel; the arena is Hollywood from 1919 to the present. Even without having served an apprenticeship onstage, Baby is star material-- photogenic and malleable, a docile sparkler. Elva is gentler than most stage mothers. She can manage Baby with a light, sure touch because she herself has an uncanny sense of what the public wants, which includes perennial childhood for child stars. (Baby's first lover calls her Baby-in-Quotes.)
This virtual identity of interests on the part of Elva and Baby deprives Running Time of some drama but enables screenwriter Gavin Lambert (Sons and Lovers, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) to concentrate on what he does best--chronicling Hollywood. As might be expected, he has some ripe anecdotes to tell. During Lionel Barrymore's brief career as a director, he wanted to elicit instant responses from actors. "And since he couldn't call out instructions during a scene, as they used to in silent movies, he wired his actors with electrical receivers hidden under their costumes. One buzz from Mr. Barrymore meant you're giving too little, two buzzes meant you're giving too much."
In 1930 a rash of suicides annoyed William Randolph Hearst. The press lord's beef was not with the victims' plights but the instruments of their deaths, which were gravity and a bridge in Pasadena. Editorializing in his Los Angeles Examiner, Hearst "echoed the Chamber of Commerce's complaint, four suicides in as many months represents a serious threat to nearby property values. A high barbed wire fence must be built around the area at once." Lambert also calls on the likes of Theda Bara, W.C. Fields, William Faulkner, and Shelley Winters for walk-ons.
Diverting as the anecdotes and cameos may be, they don't compensate for the book's hollow core. Lambert leads the reader to anticipate overarching insights into the Hollywood milieu and mother-daughter dynamics, but the focus never quite kicks in on either subject. As a result, Running Time is a gossipy, amusing B book.