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In this mordant British novel, first published in 1971 (two years before the author's death), nine characters endure--at varying levels of coherence and incoherence--a grotesque ""Social Hour"" at an English nursing home. Eight of the vignettes are narrated by the inmates--elderly, indigent NER's (patients with ""no effective relatives"" or, as the author dryly observes, ""orphans in reverse""); the House Mother's vile thoughts provide a melodramatic conclusion. The earlier narrators are the most voluble. Sarah Lamson thinks mostly about her past: her three husbands, her survival of two world wars, her indifferent son: ""I'd like to see him just the once more before I pass over, just the once. He wouldn't have to see me if he didn't want to, no, so long as I could see him, out of a window, perhaps, just going along the road, just once."" Charlie Edwards, whose narrative follows Sarah's, is much more plain-spoken, even in his private reaction to greasy mutton at dinner: ""I do not miss lamb now. I do not miss anything now. There is no point."" Just as well that the patients are absorbed in their own thoughts, because odd things are going on in the home. After a mean whose high point for everyone is the corporal punishment of a ""greedy"" patient, a pass-the-parcel parlor game is played; but the winner discovers that his prettily wrapped package is full of dog-do. Exercise period, which follows, is a ""tournament""--the stouter patients push the wheelchair cases (armed with mop handles as lances) towards each other until Mrs. Bowen scores a ""hit."" As a finale, the House Mother strips and performs a sex act with her dog Ralphie (who also donated the ""prize"" in pass-the-parcel). Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn (1977) managed to explore the topic of senility without sentimentalizing it, and Pym offered a final integrating--as opposed to Johnson's relentlessly disintegrating--vision. Here, we have a pyrotechnic non-novel whose finest moments are actually its most conventional ones--when the lucid though fragile voices of the more coherent patients are heard.

Pub Date: April 14th, 1986
Publisher: New Directions