The latest by the author of An Honorable Profession (1991), etc., takes its cue from the most gruesome of headlines—the sort of story that forces us to contemplate the nature of evil. But L'Heureux's prologue, with its talk of ``we'' (i.e., civilized readers) and ``they'' (i.e., those lower-class types who commit such heinous crimes), suggests how difficult it is for him to get inside his characters, to transcend sociological explanations for their behavior. Mexican-American Maria Alvarez, a dark teenaged beauty, thinks that blond and blue-eyed Russell Whitaker is her ticket out of the ``hot and dirty and hopeless'' San Jose ghetto. But Russell, the son of a violent alcoholic, is incapable of breaking the cycle of abuse that has literally scarred him for life. A reluctant husband, Russell soon develops an all-consuming passion for his bride, finding ``salvation'' in her eyes. When a son arrives and Maria turns her full attention to the beautiful boy, Russell becomes ``weak and needy,'' given to drunken outbursts. Before she allows herself to join in the decline, Maria loses weight, goes back to school, gets a good job, and files for divorce. Meanwhile, Russell hits bottom, living on the streets until his obsession with his ex- wife leads to an act so horrifying that we'd reject it as implausible if it hadn't in fact happened in recent times—Russell, in a fit of trancelike anger, sets his young son on fire. From there on, the novel balances the sad tale of young John's long and painful recovery with the predictably awful experiences Russell endures in jail. A number of side stories clutter a novel that already leaps forward too quickly in time. And the big questions about guilt, salvation, God's will, etc., all seem grafted onto a melodramatic (though gripping) plot. The ``terrible'' thought L'Heureux warns us about is not all that original—that evil has a human face and is committed by ordinary people. Despite the banal notions and bland prose, the incendiary subject makes this novel both painful and poignant.
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