By John L'Heureux
Atlantic Monthly. 229 pp. $24
Reviewed by Lev Raphael
John L'Heureux's been a denizen of academia for decades and knows its rampaging pettiness, venality, narcissism and backbiting inside-out. His last novel, The Handmaid of Desire, featured a university English department so bitterly split between the pro-theory "Young Turks" and the pro-literature "Fools" that one of the former dared read Jane Austen only in private.
Austen reappears in his new novel, Having Everything, as a sort of millstone for the wife of its main character. Maggie Tate never finished her PhD on Austen, instead taking the path many women have trudged: She supported her husband through medical school by secretarial work. Now, two children later, she has burned her dissertation notes and become an alcoholic composition teacher whose husband, Phil, appreciates her looks but seems barely to know her. At one point when she's severely troubled, Phil even vows that he'll "begin to be a loving, supportive husband who cared."
But then Phil Tate barely knows himself. As the novel opens, this psychiatrist is being honored as recipient of a prestigious endowed chair, yet his success sparks a terribly self-destructive act. Unlike the academics in The Handmaid of Desire, these characters aren't bald men arguing over a comb. There's real money at stake here, and real prestige involved, since the scene is Harvard's medical school. Phil is widely rumored to be a favorite for dean -- what could be sweeter and more fitting? He's a veritable cynosure: talented, handsome, smart, with a beautiful wife and gifted children at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins.
But he's got a secret, dormant vice he hasn't indulged in for years: house-breaking, which started as an adolescent prank and turned into an obsession. Nothing in the book quite matches the early sections describing Phil's teenage love of crossing the line, relishing his hidden power over others and feeling an erotic kind of invulnerability until he's caught by a family friend and goes into therapy. L'Heureux excels at other scenes of transgression, as when Phil's son Cole violates his privacy by asking intrusive questions or when Maggie falls off the wagon after going to AA. He's likewise a master of understated, ominous moments in a marriage in which not asking a question can be more disastrous than asking it.
Phil's long-buried obsession erupts in response to the pressure of all the achievement, promise, praise and apparent perfection in his life. That lapse entangles him with a new colleague, Hal, and his alcoholic wife, Dixie, after he breaks into their house. Further chaos ensues when Phil sleeps with Dixie, Hal starts confiding to him about the very kinky S&M games he plays, and Phil confesses to Maggie about Dixie. Oh yes, there's also his daughter's bout of lesbianism and assorted arguments with both children about Maggie's alcoholism, and Cole sleeps with Dixie, too.
While the book begins and ends with Phil, it's Maggie who's the more compelling character as her drinking and drugging escalate in response to what seems like a universal plot to humiliate her. Trying to save herself from despair, she decides with some family pressure to finish her PhD -- but the field has been hijacked by trendy theorists since she left, and she feels obligated to catch up. Maggie is profoundly and dramatically shamed at almost every step to and from her class on literary theory, in which she struggles to make sense of the whole slumgullion of hermeneutics, semiotics, structuralism, deconstructionism (though Queer Theory and Whiteness Studies don't get mentioned). Her basic problem is that she believes theory is "just a rival literature, a way of being important in the academic world, even if you couldn't write a novel or a play or a poem."
Having Everything is sharpest and most moving as it follows Maggie's poignant attempts to turn her life around, all of which lead her further into despair, more drinking and more pills. She'll hit bottom, and so will Phil, ending up stripped down to their bare egos, but it's not an entirely convincing denouement.
The social side of their lives seems real enough, punctuated by ghastly, comical dinner parties that burp from one faux pas to another; empty coffee talk between faculty wives; general gossip about colleagues buying art or coping with scandals. But when it comes to the professional lives and concerns of Phil and his circle, they seem sketchy and lacking in verisimilitude even as background, which undercuts the novel's believability. Perhaps by focusing on shrinks rather than English professors, L'Heureux wanted to avoid territory he'd covered in The Handmaid of Desire, but that novel is a richer, more inventive and less predictable package.
Lev Raphael is the author, most recently, of "The Death of a Constant Lover."