A somewhat stiff but nonetheless poignant meditation on a hard-drinking WASP family's unrealized promise and collective...



A somewhat stiff but nonetheless poignant meditation on a hard-drinking WASP family's unrealized promise and collective denial, by the author of Make-Believe Ballrooms (1989) and Highlights of the Off-Season, 1986. ""Jam"" Knowles, almost 40 and recently separated from his wife, breaks into the island home, off the southeastern coast of New England, where he summered as a boy to spend a few days with his memories. As teenagers, the five Knowles kids were jovial and attractive, unexceptional but well-schooled, enthusiastic participants in family rituals and smug in their trust-fund-supported sense of entitlement. Their lively mother and their father, a legendary teacher at the upper-crust Emery School, packed the house with other Emery teachers, and even the drunken weekends, with their disturbing glimpses of adult excesses (vomiting, tantrums, extramarital flirtations) are, for adult Jam, cast in sunny nostalgia. The problem is that none of the Knowles siblings is thriving. Jay, bland and overbearing as a kid, bullies his wife and child. Sarah, once icy and popular, now veers between eccentricity and bitterness. Tom, who's always had vaguely mystical leanings, has ditched the family and become a commercial fisherman. Unpleasant Sam brags about the celebrities at his AA meetings, between nasty bouts of falling off the wagon. Meantime, Father's efforts at communication are tentative at best; Mother stays merrily sloshed. Jam ruminates on his disappointments (his lack of talent as a jazz pianist, for instance), and on deaths, fights, and extremely infrequent moments of connection with his emotionally stunted father, until his estranged wife materializes to help him turn his numbness into mourning. The island remains generic despite much description, and the characters, with the exception of Father, are one-dimensional. But Smith's renditions of the family's dreadful reunions--boozy holiday meals, efforts at humor and generosity that fall flat, the needling and sniping and the hopeless attempts at festivity--are complex and filled with resonant detail. Despite some flat patches, then, a dead-on portrait of family unhappiness.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 1996


Page Count: 272

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996