A MAJOR PLEASURE of Hilary Masters' latest novel comes from the reader's page-to-page involvement in the altering moods of the fiction he has created; he is a deft craftsman, capable of moving from a sardonic insight to compassion, from satire to rowdy comedy, from sexual passion to a wish for, perhaps even a glimpse of, an order or unity beyond our splintered and violent world.
The novel begins with a telephone message to the middle-aged protagonist (his last name provides the book its title) from one of his roaming daughters that her older sister plans to be married to a rock musician in the field next to the family home in upstate New York, and it ends a few weeks later with a bizarre rehearsal of the marriage, complete with rock music, laser beams, black light, and Druid-like arches made from extruded plastic -- props for a film the rock star plans to make. Such a frame, however, doesn't constrict the scope of the story, for Masters manages to cover a number of decades in Clemmons' life, his movement from theater press agent to country real-estate developer, his marriage to the Southern woman who has more or less left him to assist in various political causes and who is the sister of a governor, and the affairs he has had, or is currently having, with various women, one of them a singer and another a woman of considerable wealth.
The ostensible story line concerns Clemmons and the daughter, Milly, who is to be married and from whom he has become so estranged (because of their similarities) that he tries, unsuccessfully, to flee from that wedding ceremony; it is also, however, the story of his relationships with all the women in his life, including his mother. The locales are Manhattan, upstate New York, a country club in what seems to be Virginia, and Provincetown. The conflict with the daughter expands to become the conflict between the sexes; in addition, the conflict between generations. In a separate but related story, we are presented with the murder of wife and daughter by a miserably unhappy and defeated film producer, who then commits suicide. Beyond these matters, the story explores the relationship between past and present in America, at least the past as it is sometimes nostalgically defined; and, though Clemmons wisely makes no pretensions to wide meanings, it does tell us by indirection something about the American condition itself.
ENCLOSED BY its fairly rigid frame, how does the novel manage to include so much? The technique is similar to that of Masters' Last Stands, the poignant and much-praised memoir about his maternal grandparents and his parents (his father, the poet Edgar Lee Masters, was 60 years old when the son was born); indeed, that biographical and autobiographical work offers a number of parallels to this work of fiction. Though it is perhaps a clumsy way to describe what is an artful structural method, Clemmons, like Last Stands, seems to me composed of a series of separate globes or transparent bubbles, each of which at its center has a present moment; around that center are arranged memories of past events appropriate to it. These memories avoid the limitation of conventional flashback by being presented directly and dramatically, often by what seems an objective narrator.
It is as if we are being given a series of gestalten, of patterns that show us related but distinct aspects of a whole personality or experience that finally is beyond analysis. I know as I move through the book that I have a series of complex responses to the major character, responses that range from admiration to dislike. Sometimes narcissistic, sometimes petty, he also is compassionate; verging at times toward violence, perhaps even a hatred of some of the women he clearly loves, he is also capable of generosity and selfless acts.
Claire, his wealthy mistress, says to him, "One part of you pretends to be this spirit that cultivates a place of solitude, while the rest of you wants a big campout with all the wickiups," which makes him, I suppose, pretty much like the rest of us, with a desire for spiritual freedom ever fighting the wish for the human community. Stated in other terms, the conflict is between the soul and the body, that old-fashioned antithesis; if Clemmons seems, for his age, unusually horny, his appetite at least makes the conflict more engrossing.
While I was reading the novel, it produced for me several disquieting esthetic moments, for I felt (perhaps wrongly) that it was encouraging me to think of Clemmons as a better human than I felt him to be; but then, I encourage myself in much the same way. I can say with more assurance that the relationship between sexuality and material possession (a link between Clemmons the lover and Clemmons the owner of a town) is a bit murky, leading to a straining of symbols. Ultimately, though, Clemmons stands as he is supposed to, unique and yet Everyman, a human poised between conflicting desires, a collection of opposing wants, a representative of our human state and of our predicament. In the final paragraph, night has come; as Clemmons watches, the cameras are rolling to record on film the rehearsal of Milly's wedding:
"Lights. Cameras. The palm trees on his shirt seem to glow with that finely focused luminosity that outlines everything just before a hurricane. But the sky is clear. Clemmons looks up. A moon's hair is caught on the dark velvet of night. His head cocks to one side as if to hear something over the sounds of the electronic music. It is a plane flying toward Albany, looking for a place to land."