In outline, the plot of this novel has all the elements of farce: ludicrous situations, improbable events. In effect, however, the book goes deep. (No pun intended, but perhaps when Pesetsky titled "Digs," she had more than one type of ambiguity in mind.) The book's depth, its resonance, comes from extraordinarily well-developed characters. Against what seems a flat and silly backdrop their roundedness is all the more emphatic.
When the novel opens, Sara Simon, in her fifties, is an artist who doesn't paint. Instead she oversees the grant money offered by the DeLeuce Foundation. When, that is, she isn't fending off the advances of Eric DeLeuce, the ardent octogenarian who employs her. Walter, Sara's husband, is a junior high school math teacher, a rumpled man with chalk dust on his sleeves. In sum, Sara thinks of her life and her marriage, "We were all middle-aged people, our children were grown, we were set upon our paths."
The accident that sets the plot in motion is made hilarious. One night, we're told, Walter's stepmother has "a yearning for a cup of soft ice cream. We know for a fact that she was wearing her pale green plastic curlers and a khaki colored caftan . . . The reviewer's most recent novel is "The Girls on the Row." She took her husband with her in her blue Camaro. There are twenty-four-hour places for those cursed with the desire for soft ice cream at three in the morning. The young man who sold her two cones, large-size chocolate, later described the scene." Walter's stepmother, he said, "made a bet with these two guys how her Camaro could beat the hell out of their Camaro. You're on, one guy said. These guys brought vanilla, regular size." The cars collide. The old couple are killed, and Walter goes from modestly poor to filthy rich.
Walter and Sara move upstate, to the country. "I thought about my previous experience with land," Sara tells us, "two pots of everblooming geraniums. Two pots on a terrace overlooking a pile of roofs." They buy a house there, and Walter discovers that it was once the site of an apartment house, a visionary architect's attempt at utopia.
Walter gets out his shovel. He eventually needs a lot more equipment. "All Walter's purchases were made at the Shilton Do It Store. Average monthly bill at three hundred eighty-five dollars. Except March, June, and August -- average bill, eight hundred fifty-five." Get the picture? This is a big hole, big enough to draw reporters and kooks.
As for Sara -- she ends up painting again. Her subject? The Hole, "sixteen Hole drawings and paintings. They are all stacked in the closets of the two third-floor bedrooms." She withdraws from Walter, from everyone.
Walter and Sara's two grown sons, Alexander and Norman, get into the book at this point. We switch, serially, to their points of view. First Norman, who is there at The Hole when Walter loses his balance, tumbles downward and ends up in a coma. It is Norman who assumes power of attorney. He discovers that his father owns a local brothel. And that his mother had a love affair with one of her college professors. And that Eric DeLeuce is -- even now -- still after his mother.
But above all, Norman is sucked in. He writes his brother, "Alexander, remember our construction paper days -- reds, blues, greens -- all primary shades. You with your library presentations and me with my damn baseball cards. Guess what, brother, old chap? I made a miniature paper model of the apartment building yesterday."
And Alexander, when he takes his turn, notes, "Everything has altered. In truth, the family used to be divided differently. Norman was essentially Walter's child, while I cleaved to Mother. The oldest boy filling the father's expectations, the youngest claimed by the mother. A perfectly natural division -- now reversed." It is Alexander who tracks down the professor with whom Sara once dallied. What he gets from the man, now in his seventies, is a disappointing, "If you want to know if Sara was my mistress -- lover -- the truth is I don't know. How long were we together? Once -- a week? -- a month?" The book moves that way, with much unsolved, the way life moves. It is, despite the laughs along the way, an elegaic book. That is its power.
It is odd, but in giving us the story of one unique family, Bette Pesetsky gives us the story of all families -- the quirks and mysteries that bind them.