It's difficult to sustain dramatic tension when detailing personal and family relationships, but Cynthia King has managed, in "Beggars and Choosers" to write an engrossing, poignant story. The central character, Linda Kaplan, isn't a woman embroiled in the typical "who am I?" syndrome that has become familiar in recent fiction.
She is instead a woman whose passionate nature is stifled by her own fears and whose cloistered suburban environment has produced in her a "chronic ambivalence." Linda also suffers from the guilty knowledge that she chose to marry David over the more passionate man she once loved. David Kaplan's law career is only a means to provide for his family, and when he takes on a case out of principle, it is only at the urging of his more socially involved partner. Linda's desire to be responsible for everyone, to set everything right, parallels the national idealism of the early '60s. America's prevailing need to absolve the guilt of plenty by instituting more welfare programs and civil rights laws at home, while sending Peace Corps advisers abroad, narrows down in this book to one woman's concern for an incorrigible 9-year-old boy.
When the neighborhood's resident hellion, Rick Lang, gets suspended from school, he begins to hang out at Linda's house. Although she is concerned about Rick's influence on her own son, Brian, she feels her love and guidance can help Rick. Despite the demands on her from her baby, her husband and Brian, and the absorbing energy it requires to watch Rick, she takes him on. She teaches him to read and listens to his stories about his grandmother and the river near her house, about his parents and his sister, who tells him nightmarish stories in the dark. Drawing her knowledge from an interrupted college major in social work. Linda tries to give Rick self-esteem and confidence.
Surely her love and patience, she thinks, will stop him from carrying a knife, stealing, lying, fighting. Her own esteem and needs become interwoven with Rick's struggle to survive. How Rick begins to affect her her children, her marriage, and her well-being is the focus of this novel.
Cynthia King, who has previously written two books for children, shows perception when writing about Rick and Brian. The anxieties, the way a child sees an adult world, are believable and natural. King writes about daily matters and family routines in a way that's reminiscent of similar subjects in some Japanese literature. The story flows not so much from episodic events as from an accumulation of details and flashbacks. Each flashback, each carefully layered revelation, brings new understanding and dimension, but there is nothing slick or sensational. It's this rendering of quiet, ordinary scenes that is most impressive. A simple day spent in the snow is given depth and tension when Linda decides to give into Rick's demands that he, Brian and the baby all ride down the hill on the same sled:
". . . they slid away. Too fast, she thought, too fast. She'd forgotten to warn them about the trees. They were going so fast they'd go too far. She'd never get them back. Come back! She had blundered! It was over in a moment, but when she saw them pick themselves up, and she counted three, yes, three tiny figures standing at the edge of the thicket, her chest hurt and there were tears in her eyes."
The story isn't written only from Linda's and Rick's viewpoint. Each character has a voice, including Rick's parents and housekeeper, David, even the school principal. The principal enoys control and order too much to allow Rick to destroy it. His parents border on caricature and need to be more defined. His mother is a wisp of a woman, dizzy, incapable of judgment, unconcerned about Rick except when he interferes with her relationship to her husband. Rick's father is ambitious, intelligent, impatient.
Rick's self-destructive course, and his adverse influence on Brian, gradually become obvious even to Linda. How much she should sacrifice to save him and whether she alone can save him become crucial questions. His determination to antagonize and turn away everyone who might love him makes him a tragic figure. But his expanding wrongdoing makes him frightening.
While Cynthia King is on firm ground when characterizing children and their relationships to adults, she falters when dealing with adults alone. During a dinner scene between David and Linda, David's law partner and a client, the conversation sounds contrived and stilted, even didactic.
"Women today," Barney was saying, "only respond to specific stimuli. They live such isolated lives in their suburban paradises with their children and crabgrass, and floor-waxes and viruses."
"Beggars and Choosers" is still a well-conceived, gently written, rather complex book. Linda's failure to personally salvage Rick seems to reflect America's own struggles. This analogy and the finely wrought scenes of family life make for a sensitive first novel.