PERU. By Gordon Lish. Dutton. 222 pp. $15.95
EVERY NOVEL is new. This one may be unique. The non-stop monologue of Peru describes real and imagined violence whose sources are an event in the narratar's childhood 44 years in the past, a scene on television two weeks away, and a bloody encounter with a taxicab driver the next morning. The desperate voice speaks the mind of a 50-year-old beginning to break or experiencing a psychotic seizure. Or perhaps his consciousness is wandering through the alleys of reverie, turning speech into garbage and screams for help. Choices abound in Peru. It's participatory fiction.
What Peru is most often about is language, meaning and knowing. And always remembering. If there is a plot, it is about how to avoid or defer communication. Peru is simultaneously one of the most awesome and most torturous novels I have read.
It opens with a bang. In a five-page section entitled "The Property" the narrator, with perfect recall, repeats a telephone conversation with an employe of a television station late at night. While packing his son's gear (thus "The Property") for departure to summer camp in the morning, he glimpses an atrocity -- beating, stabbing, shooting -- on his television set. The sound is turned down so his boy can sleep. He pleads to know where "a thing like that, people doing things like that" is happening. After an exhaustive verbal struggle, he finds out: Peru. (After an exhaustive reading, nearly 200 pages later, we learn what the narrator saw: inmates, hostages, and guards in a shootout on the roof of a Peruvian prison.)
The next section of the novel -- about 165 pages -- is called "The Cellar" (it's a title derived from the setting of childhood sex play) and begins with this paragraph:
"I do not remember my mother. I do not remember my father. I do not remember anyone from back before when I killed Steven Adinoff in Andy Lieblich's sandbox. What I remember is the sandbox, and anybody who had anything to do with the sandbox, or who I, in my way, as a child, thought did. Which is why I remember the nanny, and why I remember the colored man, and why I remember Miss Donnelly, who was my teacher when it was then."
In a way it's a pr,ecis paragraph of the story Gordon Lish incants in the miasmic fashion of Peru. It suggests the novel's central motifs as the narrator exhumes a day in his life as a 6-year-old -- August, 1940 -- and a time when every experience is large, significant, and lodged in memory exaggerated.
He either kills another child, Steven Adinoff, with a toy hoe as this child visits a neighbor and plays in the sandbox, or in his present adult state thinks he did.
Two immediate events described as happenings rather than memories seem to trigger the narrator's compulsive monologue. One is the shooting and stabbing in Peru he sees on the silent screen of his television. The other event is a struggle with a cab driver from Togoland named Kobbe Koffi that leads to injuries --
"What I am getting at, what I am preparing to talk about, is the morning of -- namely, how I got my head smashed and my fingers mashed, or what I should probably say instead, what would probably be a more honest way of stating the whole thing instead, scraped and pinched -- how I got my head scraped and two fingers pinched"
-- while trying to transfer his son's footlocker and duffel bag across town from a Manhattan apartment house to a chartered bus in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The trunk lid hits his head. A door is closed on his fingers. He bleeds badly. He thinks he is being killed.
"You don't understand," he says later, in the final section called "The Roof."
"I myself didn't.
"Not until I saw them on the roof.
"It took me forty-four years to see it again -- and you know what? Now I'll bet, I'll bet that now I'll see nothing else."
What he sees are repetitious images of himself breaking the hoe over Steven Adinoff's body, pulling flesh off Steven's face as Steven wills him to continue the beating and the killing. In deep reality he may only have struggled with Steven. He sees the Buick in the Lieblich's driveway being washed endlessly by a black man holding a hose, their maid habitually running her hand over rubberbands around her wrist, the sandbox with its tools and imaginary farms and buildings shaped by himself and Andy Lieblich before Steven Adinoff interfered. H
E RECALLS sensually and emotionally a world of
strangeness and uncertainty -- his father's clubfoot
and Steven Adinoff's harelip, genital manipulation
with Iris Lieblich and her dog, his schoolteacher's smell, childhood constipation, the mysterious comings and goings of his parents, the threats posed by Christians. It is this world that the narrator struggles to recover and order through language inadequate to his inner condition. Direct statement and concrete conclusion are thwarted everywhere as he moves through thickets of clich,es, qualifications and contradictions.
But finally Lish renders a grotesque aural portrait of a man torn by self doubt who waits "for God to reach down and make me stop saying these things" and thinks "maybe it will be a curse on you just for hearing all of this."
It chills. The talking is as if overheard. Banal, dull, frightening. Peru plays au courant tricks with reality. It takes place in Woodmere, Long Island. Streets, neighborhoods, people have reality duplicates. The narrator has the same first name as the author, "Gordon." His father is called "Phil" and his mother "Reggie." The novel is dedicated to "Regina Lish and to Philip Lish" and to "Steven Michael Adinoff, b. 1934, d. 1940."
"Believe you me, the words are never the point," Gordon tells us near the end of Peru. But the wonder of the novel is that, while it demonstrates the inadequacy of language when called upon to articulate the violence of our society, Lish turns this linguistic frailty into a haunting and painful work of modern art. It's minimalist art, a cousin of Samuel Beckett's plays and Phillip Glass' music. We live disconnected lives, in society but beyond it.