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The Beans of Egypt, Maine, are a Tobacco Road-ish clan, a swarming extended family that thrives, in its poverty-stricken way, on dirt and ignorance and incest; they live next door to the Pomerleaus, almost as poor but with pine-paneled pretensions. (Daddy Pomerleau calls the Beans ""uncivilized animals. . . . If it runs, a Bean will shoot it! If it falls a Bean will eat it."") And these eleven stories, some of them narrated by young Earlene Pomerleau, roughly follow the two families through a decade or two of earthy farce, bittersweet folly, and grim entanglements. In the brief opening piece, little Earlene introduces the dreadful-yet-fascinating Beans, spying on their raucous/foul-mouthed doings--while also revealing the far-from-upright situation in the Pomerleau household. (Gram and Gramp catch Daddy in bed with Earlene; Mumma lives at some hospital.) Meanwhile, over at the Beans, 13-year-old Beal is finding out which woman thereabouts is his mother: it's the virtually mute, apparently retarded Merry Merry. (""And of course, you ain't got no dad,"" says Auntie Roberta. ""You know how that goes."") Then, in ""The Sons of God,"" Earlene and Beal have a wary moment of shared loneliness at Christmas--after Earlene's Mumma, unrecognizable, has come home from the asylum for a ghastly, zombie-like visit. And most of the stories that follow sketch in some development in the skewed growing-up of these two rough-yet-vulnerable souls: Beal, at 19, becomes his tall Auntie Roberta's latest lover, siring a batch of kids (Roberta has failed to seduce a well-to-do neighbor, who doesn't appreciate her gifts of rabbit meat); when Earlene gets fed up with her home-life, she flees to the Bean mÉnage--and is promptly deflowered by Beal, ""his vast and hairy front raking back and forth""; in no time Earlene is a mother, appalled to find herself a quasi-Bean, sharing husband Beal with the shameless Roberta; and after the pressures of poverty and inner disturbance bring Beal to a violent end, Earlene winds up unwillingly drawn to yet another Bean--Beal's notorious, long-imprisoned, older cousin Reuben. Chute, in this debut book, freely mixes raunchy comedy with dark melodrama, folksy narration with more ambitious, leanly poetic passages. Several of the stories--involving Reuben, his wife, his mistress--add little to an already elliptic, disjointed narrative design. But, if uneven and sprawling, with insufficient development of the central characters, this story-cycle is undeniably vivid in the stark, ironic, largely unsentimental evocation of a grimy, rock-bottom contemporary milieu--from the pitch-perfect dialogue (""wicked"" means ""very"") to the knives and guns and Ouija boards.

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 1984
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin