AN AMERICAN MEMORY by Eric Larsen
Kirkus Star

AN AMERICAN MEMORY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Fully in the native grain, Larsen's often fragmentary narrative assembles a Mid-western family's past into a historically resonant saga of thwarted hopes and quiet obsessions--a novel organized by the brooding consciousness of Malcolm Reiner, an American son in search of his elusive father. To articulate the silences left by this peculiarly history-denying father, Reiner digs deep into a past of plain, though hardly simple, folk as they are exhibited in his ""museum of deaths."" Death claimed his father's father at an early age; Harold Olaf Reiner, an Iowa-born Lutheran pastor, practiced a harsh religion, and we learn of his celebrated ministry from a commemorative volume written shortly after his death in 1923. The dead pastor's son, Malcolm's father, turned early from the unforgiving faith, and his sins were many: ""insolence, sullenness, vanity, pride, arrogance, irreverence, abuse of the flesh, and, on certain occasions, deceit."" In a collage of the past, Malcolm's memory book comprises bits of manuscripts, snatches of prayers and sermons, and a self-quiz--his effort to state the facts. And these facts include his father's arrival in West Tree, Minnesota, where, at age 17, he meets his future wife, whose own roots run deep in ""unsparing rigidness"" (her father) and neurasthenia (her mother). Well-read Harold, Jr., fancies himself an artist of sorts, but ends up working in his father-in-law's moving-picture theater, and running a farm that fails. Burdened with the fact of his own children's existence, he abandons the dreams of romance and adventure nurtured by his time at war. He retreats even further into a world of images created by him--the photographs he obsessively produces. Over all of Malcolm's memories and dreams--many of these remembered also as images--looms his father, ""a figure of clenched fury, a distillation of rage, a hunched man caught by nets of bitterness, injustice, and scorn."" Driven by his own paralyzing fears, Malcolm dwells on the artifacts of generations past: his grandfather's pistol, his father's clothes. But it's his own children who provide the final healing image. A masterly exercise of the historical imagination in fiction.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1988
Publisher: Algonquin