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The sexual soul-journey of a contemporary New Yorker, from selfish promiscuity to ""the house of life""--in a long novel that's erudite, occasionally engaging, but static, oddly stuffy (despite the sexual emphasis), and relentlessly explanatory (rather than dramatic). Desmond is a handsome, 35-ish lawyer, a bachelor in hopeless love with old flame Julia, a perfect person who's now someone else's wife-and-mother. (""Truth was the soft thread that Julia used to bind Desmond to herself, and with the weaving of a thousand filaments of veracity his fate was sealed."") So, having missed the boat on this higher, total love, Desmond moves from woman to woman, behaving very badly indeed: ""He had become an empty parcel of flesh, ungoverned by his soul, or better self. Conscience was the mother of his soul, common sense the father--and both were absent."" There's ""astonishingly"" good sex with sophisticated Kathy, but no love whatsoever, and more than a little hostility. (""He wanted to slap her across the room; he could have pulled the contraceptive off and crammed it down her throat."") Then, after breaking Kathy's heart, he moves on to deflower bright, rich, plain, lame Ruth--but, despite lots of mutual affection, ""Desmend once again knew he had behaved with monumental stupidity in letting a serious relation grow when he was not serious at heart. . . . Her effect on him did not approach the hidden center of his soul."" When will Desmond's ""slow grope toward integrity"" get in gear? When will Desmond ""sufficiently value his unknown self to let it out of its dark cage and consult it"". . . ? Well, as the title foreshadows, Desmend will be nudged into soul-transformation by an encounter at the opera with an elderly woman named Mrs. De'Ath, author of an incomplete book called The Death of Christianity--30 dense pages of which are included here (including philosophical responses to the Holocaust). After reading these pages, Desmond becomes a would be writer: ""He had become faithful to his soul by becoming promiscuous with language."" And now, somehow, he has become worthy of the great love/sex object Julia. . . who leaves her husband. Cynthia Ozick--a dismaying addition to the ranks of inflationary blurb-ists--tells us that Desmond is ""Enlightenment Man; he is modernity."" Unfortunately, he is never anything like a believable, full-blooded human character--as he alternates between bad behavior and thick, didactic musings on the state of his ""soul"" (the word seems to be on every page). Indeed, pseudonymous author Thorne is much more interested in laying down a thematic, philosophical, schematic outline than in telling a story or creating characters. (Only Ruth provides some personality.) So, though a few of the sex-scenes--explicit but non-pornographic--generate heat, this is ultimately a blank-faced, verbose sermon-novel: something like a Daniel Martin with all of John Fowles' lyrical, psychological, narrative powers drained away.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1984
Publisher: Villard/Random House