Carol O'Brien Blum is not one rare phenomenon but two: a fully grown first novelist and a literary scholar who is clearly able to practice what she teaches. An associate professor of French at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, she is also the author of a scholarly study of Diderot. Her book, "Anne's Head," raises two immediate questions: How many earlier attempts at a novel lie discarded in various drawers, and how soon can we expect to enjoy her next?
No faint praise is intended in the statement that this work of fiction has the virtues of good scholarship; it also has the virtues of good fiction. The author has given herself a difficult assignment: to evoke a time and place (St. Louis, from the summer of 1902 to that of 1904) strangely alien to the present but still so recent that vestiges of bygone folkways are well remembered. To make it even more challenging, it is the world of E.L. Doctorow's highly successful "Ragtime" that she has chosen to explore -- without resorting to any of the superstar characters, ranging from Emma Goldman to Sigmund Freud, who gave that book instant (and well-earned) celebrity. Her focus is almost completely on one unremarkable family and the few people who impinge directly on their lives. Her real subject, seen through this close-up lens, is America's loss of innocence (or, if you prefer, its coming of age) around the turn of the century -- in literary terms, the transition from romanticism to realism as the operative mode of our national psyche.
This change is embodied in the family of James and Catherine O'Brien, Irish immigrants who have not exactly prospered but have managed to get by in the New World. At 48, James is the father of 10 children and a painter (an "artistic painter," not a house painter, as he repeatedly insists) of modest but useful talents, specializing in tableaux of religious or historic content because his ability is most suited to the rather stiff figures of saints, Indians and founding fathers. While his eye as an artist is firmly fixed on the past, he spends his spare moments intensely but passively immersed in the present -- voraciously reading and clipping newspapers (which were much more numerous then than now) and retailing random remarkable facts to anyone who will listen. By the book's end, having undergone a traumatic experience in the death of his oldest daughter, Anne, he has withdrawn into almost total non-communication. Now he does paint houses.
His family embodies a variety of ways to approach the transition from the Old World to the 20th century -- represented on many levels by the St. Louis World's Fair, which looms constantly in the background. To the youngest son, Frank, the fair represents a glorious dream. It exists just beyond his horizon, unattainable because he must work and because his mother, firmly set in the past, will not allow her family to go near it. He finally skips a day of work, makes his way to the fair but hasn't enough money for a ticket, and fails in his attempt to sneak in. The image of the boy on the outside, looking at the unattainable world of tomorrow glimmering out of bounds behind a fence, epitomizes the fate of a whole class of people at the turn of the century. Although Frank's future is beyond the book's scope, its probable trajectory is firmly graphed, and it is one of misery -- perhaps foreshadowed in the life of one of his brothers who works in a brewery and spends much of his time in a stupor.
The book's action centers on Anne, the oldest of James' four beautiful daughters, who literally loses her head over a man, Christian Schneider, who is alien to the family's folkways in social class, religion and general orientation to life. He drives one of the 176 automobiles operating in St. Louis in 1902, dines at private clubs, makes his money in vague, shady enterprises and tends to be violent with women. Anne first attracts his attention as the subject of her father's paintings, in which he used the heads of his four daughters to depict the four seasons. They elope because her family will not accept her marriage to a Protestant ("No Christian was ever a Catholic," shouts the parish priest on receiving the horrible news that "Chris" is not "Christopher"), and Anne ultimately dies, horribly and mysteriously. Frank and his older brother Will, a policeman, open her grave to try to unravel the mystery. This scene is the most gruesome in a book where violence is often implicit but usually offstage.
Blum's novel works not only as a story of ultimately tragic intensity, but as an evocation of a vanished past in a thousand small details and as a symbolic drama, in which various elements of an adolescent nation encounter one another with painful misunderstanding. It is a novel about the family as it once was and is no more, about the ways of handling sorrow and coping with the unpredictability of life; about the texture of the American experience early in this century, and above all, about the simple and terribly complicated plight of being human.