THE VOICES OF ROBBY WILDE By Elizabeth Kytle Seven Locks Press. 329 pp. $17.95
One wants so much for this book to succeed.
It is the story of a paranoid schizophrenic told more or less by himself, from months of interviews covering his whole life plus comments by people who knew him along the way.
"Better than any psychiatric textbook," says a blurb by noted psychiatrist Robert Coles, "this story tells us what a seriously troubled mind can mean for the person who has to live with it." Novelist Eudora Welty "found it a most unusual work of empathy and courage."
Elizabeth Kytle must have a gift for reaching people. An earlier book, "Willie Mae," told the life of a Georgia black woman -- in the first person. In "The Voices of Robby Wilde," the writer's ability to draw apparently accurate self-assessments from a schizophrenic is remarkable.
"The first 'voice' I ever heard assaulted me when I was a third-grade schoolboy," Robby Wilde recalls. "I was in an uneasy frame of mind because I had told a lie to get out of going to school ... I was sitting there, reading, the house was perfectly quiet -- and of course I always was quiet -- and I heard the voice. 'I've got you.'
"It was a man's voice -- not one I recognized -- and its quality was appallingly definite."
Through the years, into high school and beyond, to life in his North Carolina home town, down a long trail of ever-diminishing jobs, one comes to know Robby. He is an odd person, all right. At first he seems merely neurotic, but then one realizes he is being hurled about by forces far beyond his control.
Unfortunately, the reader never seems to get at them, to grapple with them, any more than Robby himself does. At one point the deprecating voices so overwhelm him that he stays home huddled in bed until he is fired. Another time, when he thinks a superior has ambushed him, he refuses to complain and so loses another job.
He leaves one with the feeling that he hasn't told it all. The matter-of-fact account reveals strange gaps. A doctor calmly advises him to go to a hospital for a rest before returning to work; next thing, he is locked into a mental institution.
Characteristically, though many women figure in the story, and Robby gets a name locally as something of a rip, it is never made clear whether he even gets to the point of sex or remains a virgin all his life.
Whathis narrative needs is an anchor in reality, some footnotes describing how the outside world interpreted all these happenings, what was in fact going on. Indeed, Kytle has tried to fill out the first-person impressions with more "first-person" comments by members of Robby's family, his teachers, rivals and adult friends.
These simply do not ring true. The voices are done as characters, sometimes in dialect.
"One of the few nights I am home, and he pitches a fit," his father drawls. "I reckon it was a fit. If he didn't have a fit, he just as good as had one ... I be damned. Mamie and myself raised four head of children before Robby, and no other child of ours ever did anything like that."
One comes to prefer Robby himself. For all his blank spots, he sounds like a real person.
And the point is, he is a real person, and paranoid schizophrenia is a disease that has struck upward of 2 million Americans, causing lifelong anguish in families and, of course, in the victims themselves.
"My friend was brave enough and boldly enterprising enough to attempt the impossible, i.e. to fully confide and express what it was like for him to exist as prey to hallucinations that ravaged his life though leaving his mind intact," the author remarks in a note.
Thisis why one wants people to read "The Voices of Robby Wilde," however short it may fall of fully portraying schizophrenia from the inside. We need all the light we can get on this tragic subject.
The reviewer is a staff writer for the Style section of The Washington Post.