On the night before Christmas Eve, up-from-poverty Boston lawyer James Sutherland, 37, is in his apartment on the Charles...

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On the night before Christmas Eve, up-from-poverty Boston lawyer James Sutherland, 37, is in his apartment on the Charles River, looking out at a developing blizzard. He's thinking about his recently acquired second-wife Jane, an earthy magazine editor who's about to go into labor with their baby at any time. And he's also thinking about his rotten decade with ex-wife Edith--a rich, incredibly beautiful icicle-woman who went revoltingly berserk every Christmas (""it was somehow not unlike witnessing a dinner theatre production of Marat/Sade"") while her Danvers-like housekeeper/companion looked on impassively. But then, out near the river, James sees a man wave at him and then shoot himself! Even stranger, the man then disappears, leaving behind a trail of chicken's blood! Could this be the same man who starts calling James and Jane the next day, laughing maniacally? The same man who seems to be following James around Boston in the snow? And the mystery still lingers through a busy Christmas Eve: the Sutherlands are joined by James' feuding parents (Yankee Archie and Quebecker Marjorie) and by an odd couple of friends (including psychic bisexual hairdresser Otis); the fake-suicide repeats his act outside; and Jane at last must go to the hospital to have her baby. Well, that's the first half of McHale's new novel: somewhat weird, quite readable black comedy not unlike the more political The Lady from Boston (1978). Then, however, we find out the identity of the Mystery Man--he's Jane's ex-husband Manfredi, who happens to be the real father of Jane's new baby girl--and the dark absurdism soon slides into contrived, flat, oddly unpleasant melodrama: Manfredi demands possession of his baby; flashbacks detail the ugly James/Jane/Manfredi triangle; James hires killers (via delicatessen owner Mordechi) to eliminate Manfredi (but it's James' mother who, apparently, effects the murder); there's blackmail, a couple of funerals, and the suicide pact of two subsidiary characters. The point? Unfortunately, as usual with McHale, it's none too clear--other than his preoccupation with revenge, family secrets, and loyalty. And this time his talents as an entertainer are too randomly exercised to compensate for the arbitrary plotting, the unlifelike characters, or the flashback-heavy narration. All in all: a spottily gifted writer at his spottiest.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 1981

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1981