Mary Robison, the author of "Days," a collection of short stories, has written a first novel that is deceptively ambitious and quietly surreal. Witness the opening tableau: a young woman, Maureen, suddenly awakes from a long afternoon nap in her back yard.
"She shoved herself up onto her elbows in grass clippings that whirled like gnat storms, and looked into the skis of a helicopter bobbing, nose down, yards above her own nose . . . She went under the patio's slatted roof. The helicopter, hovering;, gave off a siren sound that never got going, a pleading meant just for her."
Thus, Robison estabishes the tone and subject for "Oh!", a novel that presents itself as an ironic profile of an American family under the siege of everyday life. yrobison rarely allows her characters to speculate. Instead, she "reports" events and dialogue with a deadpan delivery.
Although the scene is dreamlike, Maureen does ;not conjure up this swooping helpcopter; her ex-lover, the father of her child, really is the "man is the Plexiglass bubble." Because Robison does not dwell too long on this scene, because she allows the event to speak for itself -- for all its portent danger -- the scene, like so many that follow, succeeds. It is Robison's accuracy, her ability to represent rather than elaborate on the life of a wealthy midwestern family, the Clevelands, that proves to be the value of her novel.
Robison's three generations of Clevelands endure a tornado, broken marriages, family secrets, but they are at a disadvantage from the start. Collectively, the Clevelands lack the moral certainty of, say, John Irving's Garp, a man whose fanatical adherence to his own quirky principles equips him with a clear vision, no matter how illusory, of right and wrong. The Clevelands have no such vsion. They are too smart, too ironic for anything even resembling moral confidence. Their wisecracks are evidence not only of an ability to laugh in the face of trying times, but also of their confusion and hopelessness.
Mr. Cleveland, a miniature-golf and soda-pop baron, begins his days with Bloody Marys and wnats to marry a television missionary named Virginia. At home, he is the benevolent monarch of his two grown children -- Howdy;, the least talented member of a worthless rock band, and Maureen, the unwed mother of Violet and a virtual narcoleptic -- still live at home. For lack of anything better to do, Howdy falls hopelessly in love with unfaithful Stephanie, and Maureen fights off the advances (by air and land) of Violet's conniving father, Chris. Eventually, as much out of boredom as of desperation, she begins to reconsider this contemporary version of a rake.
But mostly the Clevelands do nothing. Mostly the talk about the weather, the house, the garden. The reader often gets a sense that nothing is happening. In fact, Robison reveals a great deal about the Clevelands. Here is Maureen, rebuffing Chris once again, yet hinting at her affection:
"'You are the part," she said. 'I hate it. I don't even want one. My past is a joke. Violet -- there's one joke. She gets under everyone's feet and she reminds them that I, Maureen, am a twenty-four-year-old failure. What are you looking at?' Her legs opened as she twisted in the chair."
Robison's dialogues, her terse declarative sentences, seem to raise themselves to the level of incantation. Loke contemporary Ray;mond Carver, she works well in a currently fashionable spare style.
When she fails, however, Robison seems to parody economy. There are times when her dialogues and narratives break off or give up rather than suggest some morsel of mystery or truth. The brief chapters and hanging narratives, so often integral to the novel's strength, occasionally are more undernourished than slim. The character that suffers most from this elusiveness is Mr. Cleveland himself. Too often, he ends his appearances drunk, silent and sleeping. As a result, we are somewhat unprepared for his part in the novel's final flurry of action.
But more often than not, Robison's economy pays off. The moments of significant change and speech come, like the daily events of most families, without fanfare. Just before Mr. Cleveland reveals to his children the true facts about their mother, Maureen challenges him:
"'I want out of here,' Maureen said. 'I want out of everything.'
"'There's no ay out of life,' Cleveland said." And then he tells them the darkest news they have ever heard.
So long as Mary Robison begins to add more range and insight to her spare idiom, her future work should fulfill the promise of her first novel.