Imagine a foul-mouthed, female Holden Caulfield with a family that makes the Hotel New Hampshire look like Sunnybrook Farm and a life that would sicken de Sade.
And that's only the beginning of what Margaret Mitchell Dukore has fangled for her fresh and promising first novel. Her heroine is a tough little cupcake named Annie Foster, who at 18 is writing a first-person autobiographical novel, called "Heritage," about her demented kin. This novel forms the main text of Dukore's book. Annie is sending it, piece by piece, to her editor, Martin Goldsmith, and their ripening correspondence is interspersed between the sequential chapters.
The technique offers an inviting double-perspective: What Annie thinks of her life, as revealed in the novel; and what she thinks of the novel, as revealed in her letters. And what with the gaggle of loons who people the pages of "Heritage," we need all the perspective we can get.
We learn on the first page that Annie's mother, Kate--a beautiful actress who was an early sensation on the New York stage before giving it up to become an Oregon housewife--killed herself when Annie was 10. Six years later, Annie is living in San Francisco with her father (a lackluster professor of drama), her younger sister, Holly, her father's ex-wife, Janet (a polyester matron known en famille as "Porky Pig"), her father's mistress, Linda ("along with her acne scars, she had a wardrobe that made her look like something Woolworth's went to work on") and Janet's mother, Ruth, who rightly regards the entire outfit as "a bunch of basket cases." Intermittently appearing is a jaded playwright named Hollister with a crank sense of humor (the wreath he brings to Kate's funeral reads: "Best of Luck in Your New Location!") and a lecherous eye for Annie.
Intriguing as this nutcake menagerie is, it functions only as a backdrop of marathon bickering against which Annie will depict the full catastrophe of her mother's character, which Annie fears she has inherited. And what a character: By comparison, the Bride of Dracula is a prom queen.
Kate was a hysterical romantic, with powerful sexual appetites sublimated into vastly exaggerated notions of love and marriage. ("There isn't room for us anymore . . . the romantics. People write us off as crazy.") The inevitable disillusion turns her into a self-hating, man-eating masochist, alternately spraying gall and convulsing in guilt. She excoriates her husband for the waste of her talents, and flounces through the house playing the part of a cynical, melodramatic victim. ("Sex runs the world," she tells Annie. " 'You're full of s---, Mother,' I said, and she slapped me across the face.") Worse yet, she is determined to pull the rest of the clan into the acid hell of remorse she can escape only in death. A sample family chat:
"Things would have been different," my mother often said to my father . . . "if my babies could have had my childhood . . . Instead of being brought up in this s--- hole, they could have lived!"
"The way you live?" my father asked. "Crying in the night, castrating your husband, living in the past?"
"I live in the past because I have no future!" she snapped.
"They do," he answered.
"Memories are more beautiful than reality," she said.
"Couldn't anticipation be beautiful too?"
"F--- you too, Katie."
After the meandering chronology dips back to Kate's story and subsequent suicide, it sprints ahead to show just how deeply she has poisoned the family well: Her husband's sudden sickening act of violence destroys the household in a Bedlam by the Bay; and Annie tentatively begins to reenact her mother's vicious behavior.
Revealing that behavior is one function of the second, present-tense plot embodied in the exchange of letters. Annie is both melodramatically serious and brutally flippant about her work. She wants to be "the women's Salinger," but says, "If you are getting bored, I'll add more sex and violence" and "I'd rather be on Johnny Carson than go to Heaven!" And even as she encourages Martin's epistolary sexual advances--culminating in a humid little tryst--she flays him for infidelity. ("What is this s--- about putting me up at the Algonquin like Dorothy Parker? Your wife still at home?").
The letters also serve as an author's gloss of the novel's main themes, which are few, self-conscious and rather banal, the net purport being simply that Annie is fighting with dubious success against her destiny: "to carry on the family tradition and fill the earth with children having the superior (inferior?) genes my father the loser and my mother the madwoman passed on to me. S---."
That might be enough. But the reader's ample fascination with the characters has to contend against one of the most relentlessly nasty narrative voices in modern memory. The tone is intended to be black-comic, bristling with industriously catty sophomoricisms--"my hair was so greasy it looked like someone had soaked it in Wesson Oil--really Crisco city!" Yet the humor wilts as every scene is smothered in Annie's sterile sarcasm and pelted with the excremental monosyllable, which rarely occurs less than twice per page and often as many as five, with a "f---" or two stuck in for elegant variation. Dukore has her reasons: Annie's language is intended both to mirror her mother's pathologically ugly view of the world and to provide Annie with an ironic shield against the rushes of love and revulsion she is fated, and frightened, to feel. But we lose our appetite in the noisome prose.
It is a frequent mistake of novice realists to mime precisely the gangling syntax and impoverished, redundant diction of "ordinary" speech. And the effect of Annie's incessant vulgarity, coupled with the high whine of the sarcasm, becomes the prose equivalent of a chain-saw competition hosted by Joan Rivers.
Still, for those who can stomach it, "Heritage" offers not merely an inventive structure but a comic horror show of painfully memorable characters. That's plenty for a first novel, and one wishes Dukore many more.