THE PULL OF THE EARTH by Alfred Alcorn


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New England Gothic with a naturalistic vengeance and a woebegone cast: an enfeebled farmer; his lonely and childess wife; a broken-spirited handyman in residence; and a waif who observes the pitiful and inevitable complications. Janet Vaughn, 37, can't manage alone on the small Massachusetts farm she owns--circa 1958--with invalid husband Hedley. So alcoholic Lucian Quirk, a Bronze-Star winner in World War II (he never quite recovered from his killing-machine role), is hired on to do the haying; and when Hedley later has a heart attack and is hospitalized for a long time, what occurs between Janet and Lucian is no more nor less than what you'd expect. Meanwhile, pre-pubescent Bobby Dearborn, an orphaned distant relative of Hedley's, has come to live with the Vaughns; he therefore sees what's going on between Janet and the handyman--which for him is an education of the senses. Then, when Hedley returns and Janet finds herself pregnant (besides being flayed by Catholic guilt over the affair), Lucian asks her to leave with him for California--but she refuses. And the result is an overflow of final dilemmas--which first-novelist Alcorn drastically clears out by resorting to an unconvincing heaping-up of suicide, fire, and death-by-goring. (Janet will suffer when a bull is trapped in a burning barn.) Heavy, unsubtle symbols are clumped throughout--from that bull to Janet meditating upon her childlessness while gathering eggs. The sex-writing is often ponderous: "". . . and just when she thought she couldn't bear it any longer he made her go oh oh Oh with a long slow stab touching her deeper and wider deeper and wider wider wider until she melted and ran like wax in a flame. . ."" In fact, the only moments that come across effectively involve the mortifications of Janet's guilt (""All of her moral debts seemed suddenly due"") and Hedley's gratefulness to have survived his heart attack--while Janet remains the only fully realized character in the novel. Overall, then: lopsided, deterministic melodrama in a familiar, overheated vein.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin