"Dingley Falls," by Michael Malone, is a lovable, sprawling old-fashioned kind of novel about life in a small Connecticut town. Like a homemade sweater someone grew up knitting, it seems to reflect the changing seasons of the author's life -- bright and flashy here, with a few lumps; more skilled and muted there, better suited to the materials at hand.
At first, Malone plays the novel for laughs. Sometimes he gets them and sometimes he doesn't. He's best in what I think of as he Miss Marple mode, as in this exchange between an aged rogue and the town's innocent rector:
"Someone get her pregnant, that's my bet," said old Mr. Bredforet loudly. "I had an Asian girl myself once. In Singapore. Limber as a rainbow trout."
"She was a swimmer?" asked Highwick sweetly.
Malone is least successful -- most sophomoric -- when condescending toward the ladies who dedicate themselves to art on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, although he evokes many a chuckle at their expense. The perky Mrs. Canopy, for example, talks frequently at her late husband's grave, which is graced modern-art-fully by a sculpture of crushed automobile parts called "Victory Over Death." "She needed a vehicle to receive her thoughts, and Vincent's Buick had come to serve that purpose. She did not, necessarily, assume that he lay listening beneath it. For that matter, he had rarely listened when he had sat across from her at dinner, or before the living room fire. The change was that he no longer got up and went to bed before she finished."
A little of this goes a long way, and the humor is often silly. There are times in the first third of the book when I wanted to smack Malone in his repartee, and strip the novel of achingly cute names like Habzi Rabies and lake Pissinowno. Then he would make me laugh and I would forgive him.
"Dingley Falls" grown on you despite itself. The novel opens with 50-year-old patroness of the arts Beanie Dingley Abernathy leaving her passionless husband and ungrateful teenagers for a lascivious avant-garde poet named Rich Rage (you see?), whom she becomes entranced with at a meeting of the Thespian Ladies Club. Freed of Beanie's latent earthiness, her dutiful husband, Winslow Abernathy, blossoms and is quietly overpowered by interest in another woman, with a tenderness so understandable that it arouses all our old-fashioned craving for happiness ever after. In fact, love blossoms all over town -- sometimes sweetly, sometimes in happy naughtiness, often unrecognized or unrequited. The unleashing of repressed sexuality and romance becomes an important part of the novel's interest, with just the right dash of marital unhappiness to lend a realistic note.
Equality important in the second half of the novel, where Malone the humorist turns the show over to Malone the storyteller, is a growing sense of menace. At this point, the author has to bring together two major plot threads so entirely ill-matched that it's a wonder he manages as well as he does.
Ostensibly, the town is in danger because of a germ warfare plant that has flourished nearby despite the federal government's having funded and then forgotten it. The practical effects of the federal flub are chilling in the sense that fatal things happen that good people in town cannot control or even understand.
Far more creditble and engrossing is the menace posed by a citizen of Dingley Falls whose frustration at being excluded from the town's sexual goings-on -- and from power and recognition generally -- visibly builds in intensity, climaxing in an episode far more shocking and intensely rendered than anything the first part of the book could have led you to expect.
Schizophrenic in tone and concept, "Dingley Falls" is an imperfect novel so full of energy and gems of characterization, so succesful at creating a sense of place and people, that you forgive it its excesses and awkwardness, are sorry when it's finished, and look forward to the author's next book. There's talent there, and life. One senses Malone will grow.
One senses, too, that Malone started out feeling superior to his characters and ended up liking at least half of them. This does not appear to be true of Gene Horowitz, author of "The Ladies of Levittown," a crisp, unhappy novel about life in a suburban development outside of New York City. Horowitz surveys 21 years in the lives of five Jewish women, whose dashed hopes and flawed marriages left me feeling like Cinderela at the ball. That the ladies of Levittown are ultimately unhappy in their suburb is not surprising. Levittown is presented as an artifical set-up that attracts people who think artificial set-ups will make them happy. Nothing saves the ladies from life's bitter letdowns -- not even an awakening to Great Books by Aaron, the sensitive Levittown high school teacher who lives in Manhattan (Horowitz taught high school in Levittown before moving to Manhattan). "The Ladies of Levittown" is a well-planned novel, consistent in tone right down to the last cliche. I'll take Malone and his hand-knitted novels any day.