"Curranne Trueheart," Donald Newlove's first book since his highly praised memoir "Those Drinking Days" and his first novel in seven years, takes up, but in a new manner, the author's themes of addictive depravity and the possibilities of redemption. Newlove begins his novel with characteristic brio: "What could be more hopeless than a madwoman marrying a drunk? But cities have always been full of crazy people and alcoholics who marry. That lasting love can grow from such a union -- such a fearful matching of cracks -- is a miracle."
Here we have the author's salient virtues: his clarity of thrust, the beautiful metaphor -- the matching cracks will echo again in the final paragraph -- and a concluding hint of some greater power that may infuse our lives. In fact, however, these opening lines are slightly misleading; Jack Trueheart is indeed a desperate alcoholic as the novel begins, but reforms early and permanently when he sees how seriously his beloved Curranne needs his help. Although this allows Newlove to focus almost exclusively upon his harrowing picture of a human soul fettered by paranoid schizophrenia, it seems strangely less than just to the rigors of escaping alcohol's grip, which Newlove knows as well as anyone.
In "Those Drinking Days" Newlove suggests that formal invention has never been his strong point. But in Jack Trueheart, he has created a figure of straightforward autobiography, carrying over the smallest details from his memorable portrait of the 30-year-old unpublished novelist living with his mother, failing his job as a small-town reporter and embarking on his long journey downward.
The reader may pretend not to notice this, out of New Critical decorum or vague embarrassment, but Newlove plainly wants us to see it, or else why does he not change certain characters' names, or make more of an effort for those he does? At the end of the novel, the narrator speaks to us directly in a voice that segues from Trueheart to Newlove ("Parts of her story I've had to imagine, more than you might think"). This risky tactic works, and the unusual blend of more and less fictional elements achieves a perspective that is apposite and genuinely moving.
Nevertheless, when the reader remembers that the sodden Newlove of "Those Drinking Days" faced another decade of debased alcoholism before he was able to achieve sobriety and write a publishable novel, one feels that the author has convincingly demonstrated the unlikelihood of his protagonist's breaking free as (relatively) easily as he does.
The story is told first by Trueheart, then shifts uneasily to third-person, focusing on Curranne, with one long chapter reproducing a journal she briefly keeps. The depiction of schizophrenia, and Curranne's repeated efforts to ward off its advances, has the ring of utter authenticity, but the novel is at its weakest when it takes us inside her head. Solitary as Curranne's struggle finally is, we can see it better in her interactions with husband, doctor and the mundane world of 1958 small-town New York than in her introspective passages, many of which could have been trimmed to advantage.
Like all Newlove's work, the novel is charged with metaphor, ranging from the very good to the impenetrable -- and there is a great deal of both. The Whitmanesque plenitude of the book gives one the impression of reading unedited text, which is unfortunately reinforced by a fair number of anachronisms.
Should Newlove revise the novel for its paperback edition, as he did for "Sweet Adversity," I hope he will pay attention to such lapses and unclot some of his imagery (such as a character's "star-boned hand," which also appeared in his last novel and still doesn't make much sense). "Curranne Truelove" is a passionate and for the most part splendid novel, alive despite flaws. It should bring Newlove, and Newlove's earlier books, a new and wider audience.