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From the widely praised author of Martin and John (1993) comes another grim, affecting, and structurally ambitious work, this a blend of fiction and biography based on the lives of the author's parents. Beatrice and Henry are college lovers who meet shortly after her father dies. The reclusive and death-obsessed Beatrice, whose mother has been dead for several years, is attracted to brain-cancer-stricken Henry (""he was beautiful in the way dying young men are beautiful""), and the two of them have several months of living-for-the-moment bliss before Henry agrees to a risky operation that they're both sure will kill him. Meanwhile, a concurrent storyline concerns a bitter married couple, Beatrice and Henry, who've been together for 40 years. When the older Beatrice and Henry visit an old friend who's dying of cancer, the two are brought face to face with their wasted lives. After young Henry survives his operation, Peck shows the marriage of young Beatrice and Henry disintegrating in alcohol and distrust, petty insults and horrible affairs. The old Henry and Beatrice move to the country and have one last chance to get over a lifetime of mistakes. The entire middle of the book, though, is taken up with a straight biographical description of Dale Peck Sr., a violent, alcoholic womanizer who may have caused the death of his pregnant wife. This section appears as if to show the troubled source for the fictional lives of Beatrice and Henry. And it is no accident that the couple has an estranged son named John, the same John who was the autobiographical character in Martin and John. The re-using of a character is an interesting device that gives the novel extra weight, as if one were watching a painful but fascinating and beautifully crafted documentary. Overall, Peck uses his relentless eye for human weakness to paint an exceedingly harsh and detailed portrait of a failed father and husband. Bleak, challenging, and impressive.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"