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THE ICE CATHEDRAL by George Leonard



Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

This vital, crude, uneven second novel begins powerfully: loner/loser Mark Kessler, 37, a short, muscular, unattractive Jewish fisherman on Long Island's south shore, is out in his boat in a deserted wildlife sanctuary; a foul bird-hunter violently intimidates him;in the ensuing fight, Kessler accidentally (?) kills the loathsome hunter. And, as Kessler numbly goes about concealing his crime (arranging for the corpse to appear a victim of sharks), Leonard generates a mixture of horror and sympathy reminiscent of such compelling little-guy-caught novels as Irwin Shaw's Nightwork and Bill Griffith's Time for Frankie Coolin. Strong, too, is Kessler's visit to his long-estranged father--a suburban doctor whose chilling, scornful loathing for ""failure"" Mark remains intact after all these years. (""A Jew turning into a clammer, a fisherman. . . Abie the Fish Man. Disgrace. $honda. Why not go back to Pitt Street?"") But soon, unfortunately, the schematic, theme-heavy nature of Leonard's novel takes over. Kessler realizes that he finds atavistic pleasure in killing. (""What am I, turning into the Son of Sam? Or that crazy asshole that killed John Lennon?"") With reference to the Ursula Andress film The Tenth Victim, he embarks on a killing spree of sorts, provoking some bikers into threatening him, then slaying three of them--including (unintentionally) a young mother. . . whose orphaned baby he turns over (with phony explanations) to teenage hooker Ellen. The next victim: Ellen's disgusting, incestuous pimp/father--liberating 14-year-old Ellen from prostitution, freeing her to live in an untainted father/child arrangement with quasi-noble Kessler. But meanwhile, of course, all these corpses (despite Kessler's shark-as-killer seam) have attracted local police attention; soon bounty-hunters are searching the shoreline area where Kessler, Ellen, and biker-baby are holed up. And winter will bring a drawn-out, icy, underwater chase/showdown between killer/hero Kessler and the forces of ""civilization""--with excess gore (""he was alone inside a mountain of dead babies"") and a maudlin finale that's part Wagner liebestod, part Jimmy Cagney meller-weeper. The central problem here, of course, is that Kessler's insatiable killer-urge--though presumably linked to his justifiable father-hatred--is never believable for a moment; matters aren't helped; either, by the pulpy/pretentious verbalization of this John Wayne/Nietzsche/Rollerball compulsion--which lacks the clear vengeance hook of a Death Wish. (""God! This is Living! Me versus them. But I'Ll outsmart 'em. . . . He wasn't aware that he was any different now than when he had killed the first man on the beach. It seemed only that he had gotten past the hypocrisy and timidity that afflicted the rest of mankind."") Over-bearing and unconvincing, then, but marbled with visceral energy: an undeniably vivid outburst from the author of the similarly uneven Beyond Control (1975).