WHITE WATER, the first novel by University of Maryland professor Joyce Reiser Kornblatt, is not a story about shooting rapids on an American river, as the title may suggest. Instead, this "white water" is the turbulence stirred up by family conflict, and the novel charts the hazardous course which the members of one particular family must negotiate.
To tell the story of the Fry family, Kornblatt uses a method similar to Faulkner's in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury -- several different family members serve as narrators. It is unfair to hold this first novelist up to the example of Faulkner, yet in its structure and focus on family and memory, White Water testifies to the seriousness of Kornblatt's ambition.
That ambition is admirable, but alas, though the novel has interesting moments, in the end it fails to convince us -- in large part because its slender frame (210 pages) will not bear the weight of its structure, plot and theme. There is simply too much going on.
In White Water, the wedding of Diana Fry is the event which will by the novel's end bring the family members together. But for most of the book the several narrators relate various and varying experiences, both past and present, and their thoughts about them -- so many that neither plot nor character can receive adequate development.
At the novel's beginning, Rose Fry, the widow of an FBI fingerprint expert living in Washington, is on her way to Florida to attend the wedding of her granddaughter, Diana. The sorrow of Rose's life is that her two sons, Karl and Justin, no longer speak to each other, and Karl has not invited his brother to his daughter's wedding. Karl is a kind, thoughtful man, curious and interested in many things but not particularly ambitious. Years ago he left his shrewish, nagging wife Florence and young daughter Diana and quit his job as a government clerk. When his ex-wife and child moved to Florida, he followed and bought a run-down motel near Miami. Karl is happy and contented, in love with his second wife, enjoying his quiet life in Florida.
JUSTIN, TOO, is divorced -- from Grace, a social worker, though he often sees her and his two children. Always the difficult child, he became the difficult adult, bitter and angry at his family, especially his domineering father, who he feels never loved him, and now at his brother, who he feels betrayed him. Justin was, in fact, an important radical lawyer in the '60s, famous throughout the country, and was disbarred after lying about aiding a fellow radical. When he was underground, Justin phoned Karl and told him where he was; Karl told their FBI-man father, who turned his son in. Now Justin writes articles for liberal journals like The Nation and Rolling Stone and works for various liberal causes.
Diana's fianc,e, Sam Cortez, the son of an imprisoned Paraguayan newspaper editor and himself a journalist for the Miami Herald, finds out that Diana's uncle is the Justin Fry and, unbeknownst to his fianc,e's family, comes to Washington to ask him to go to Latin America to bring his father back from prison. Justin agrees -- he is, he says, "committed" -- and leaves immediately for Miami and then La Paz, where he succeeds in freeing Senor Cortez.
Meanwhile, Diana is nervous about her marriage. Like Justin, she is bitter -- with the result that she is sexually promiscuous and doesn't believe in anything (why she and the serious, overly earnest Sam are together is difficult to understand). On a last fling, Diana goes to visit Wayne, a sometime boyfriend who is very good in bed and who, it is hinted, has a violent temper. Wayne takes Diana hostage at her father's motel. What happens next is fairly predictable. I've related this much of the plot merely to show how much Kornblatt tries to work in.
One problem here is that if a serious novelist is going to use such by-now standard plot lines as radical family members, secret missions to Latin America and a bride's kidnapping by a psychotic boyfriend, she'd better think of a way to make those events seem necessary and inevitable. Kornblatt seems to want them to carry some larger implications about history and society. Sam's father is in prison because he won't "forget." Justin thinks of himself: "How strongly he'd believed he could mount History and ride it out of his family's homestead, but there was no road and History had no body for him to grasp -- only this swirl of events, violent squalls and momentary calmings, persecutors and victims alike caught in the invisible currents, people not land dwellers at all, but creatures of the ungovernable white-water air." But these attempts to wrest meaning from experience seem tacked-on, imposed, rather than developing naturally from character and plot. Though the novel is sprinkled with such reflective statements, they seem undifferentiated -- the characters sound alike.
By the time I finished White Water, I felt as though I, not Justin, had just made the long flight from La Paz to Miami, journeying in a day from the cold southern winter north to the stifling heat of a northern summer, everything confused and disorienting. By the way, this is Miami, isn't it?