MOTHER OF PEARL by Edward Swift


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Previously, comic-writer Swift has treated a small Texas town (Splendora), Bible-thumpers (Principia Martindale) and Greenwich Village crazies (The Christopher Park Regulars). Now in a zany follow-up, he focuses on a southern family of eccentrics--and does them up well enough to put him in the company of James Wilcox and James Purdy. The McAlisters live according to family time (justifying the story's frequent flash-forwards, though not making them completely effective): sisters Pearl and Wanda Gay sit and rock on the porch, arguing over the placement of rosebushes in their last spring together. Pearl, particularly, thinks about the past: her father Albert, a lame mechanic and womanizer who is finally driven off; her mother Eugenia, an overbearing terror obsessed with reputation; her brother Frank, who dies in Rio during carnival; and her son Teddy, as wild as Frank--thanks (Pearl thinks) to a ""karmic relationship"" with him. Swift works this cantankerous family and other locals to good effect in a narrative that bobs back and forth in time. Frank, a construction worker who once robbed a liquor store, puts himself in jail in 1955 in order to have time alone, but the family descends upon him; Pearl, ""haunted by the ticking of a phantom metronome"" (her mother's doing), manages--metronome in sight--to finish a 90-minute recital in 65 minutes. The chronicle has fun with its people, but the southern clan--full of obsessions about private history--dies off one by one: by the close, which manages to be more lyrical than slapstick, Pearl too has passed on. As one character here remarks, there is ""something singular about these people,"" and Swift's prose, always lively, is never too high-toned for his milieu: a quirky and entertaining novel.

Pub Date: June 5th, 1990
Publisher: British American--dist. by Simon & Schuster