SHADOW PLAY by Charles Baxter


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A superb short-story writer, Baxter disappoints in his second novel (after First Light, 1987)--an uninspired mix of Sinclair Lewis and Ann Beattie. It's a midwestern melodrama of a dysfunctional family with a social conscience, all rendered with a strained seriousness and an intensity that often veer into parody. In a book that's self-consciously about ""the ordinary,"" Baxter's oddball characters can't wait to escape their dreary lives in Michigan, where they pretend to he part of ""the mainstream."" Wyatt Palmer, ""a standard-issue bureaucrat with a bad haircut,"" is haunted by his family history. His architect father died young, leaving Wyatt with a vague memory of an ironically detached, bitter man who spent weekends drinking and laughing to himself in his basement workshop. With his death, Wyatt's mother Jeanne became ""the absentee landlord of her own body and mind"" (i.e., she went nuts), speaking a cryptic language full of loopy neologisms. Meanwhile, Wyatt was raised by Aunt Ellen, a spinster-bohemian who's writing her own alternative Bible about a God that isn't dead, just indifferent. Wyatt's wife, whom he meets at college, fears a ""dreary settled domesticity,"" which is exactly what she gets when the two move to Wyatt's hometown, where he works in the city manager's office. Wyatt triumphs when a friend builds a new factory in town, but his pride is short-lived. Having gotten a job there for his goof-off cousin Cyril, he realizes that the factory is an environmental disaster, partly responsible for Cyril's fatal cancer. Wyatt's crisis of conscience leads to adultery, a tattoo, and arson, but before he goes completely off the deep end, his family retreats to Brooklyn (!). After all, in New York, everyone's nuts. Such is the level of sophistication in a novel that takes very seriously its commentary about ""creature comforts,"" ""the American Dream,"" and Scientology. There's lots of fortune-cookie wisdom here (""nature loves a vacuum"")--puritanical aphorisms that don't add up to much of a novel.

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 1993
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Norton