Phillips, author of an impressive but uneven short-fiction collection (Black Tickets, 1979) again registers as a...

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MACHINE DREAMS

Phillips, author of an impressive but uneven short-fiction collection (Black Tickets, 1979) again registers as a half-developed talent in this first novel: the story of a deeply unsuccessful, smalltown West Virginia family, the Hampsons. Mitch, a veteran of WW II action in the Pacific, marries Jean in 1947. Two children are born in short succession: a girl, Danner, and a boy, Billy. And Mitch's concrete business prospers well enough until his partner Clayton dies. Then, however, as will happen so often, Mitch seems to lose drive, spark: the business comes apart. Meanwhile, Jean, whose mother was dying when she met Mitch, takes a certain recuperative pleasure in having a daughter of her own; but Jean too is walled-in behind herself--and when the children reach college age, she and Mitch divorce. Then Billy drops his student deferment and goes into the Army, to Vietnam as a helicopter gunner: he'll be shot down and listed an MIA. So Danner, briefly taken up by the drug culture of the Sixties, falls into a protracted mourning for Billy--this third member of the family who has (in one manner or another) drifted off, becoming unfindable. Throughout, Phillips moves from character to character, offering each one's thoughts and perspective in separate chapters that read like tenuously connected, impressionistic short stories. And this fractured, close-up approach does result in several vivid, pearled evocations of consciousness: Mitch bulldozing dead Japanese bodies as a Seabee during the war; Billy and Danner lying down just beyond the takeoff runway of the small local airport as a Beechcraft roars up just 30 feet over their heads; Danner's pained bewilderment at Billy's disappearance. But the style generates no momentum for the novel, which seems to lurch from one heightened situation to another, with much mildness in between. The family intimacy never becomes fully textured; nor do the family ties seem truly credible. So, though there's pathos and scattered intensity in the domestic misfortune here, it lacks the shape and power of more structured or full-bodied family fiction.

Pub Date: June 19, 1984

ISBN: 0375705252

Page Count: -

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1984