DAMAGES by Helena Harlow Worthen


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By the author of the uneven but talented Perimeters (1980), a startling, steely-ribbed novel about a woman's hatred of her father, in which the two principal characters loom as precise and absolute--in the high-noon heat of their self-absorption--as the giant mesas in the New Mexican desert where the penultimate action takes place. Seventeen-year-old Mary King is secure in a neutral tripartite living arrangement with small, anxious Victor, also 17, and bearlike actor Ivan, the stabilizing keystone. But it seems to Victor that Mary ""had no past. You're like a science fiction thing."" Mary's past has been a tutorial in shutting out fear--and rage. Her father, Joe Hank King, had forbidden fear, raising his first of five daughters to be ""a kind of armoured woman."" Father Joe Hank--Columbia Ph.D., ex-Harvard teacher, author of a best-selling (1960's) exhibitionistic, pseudo-learned grab bag of insights on self-consciousness and civilization--was now the founder-guru of a ""pioneer democracy,"" the well-financed Padma commune in New Mexico. Mary, with ""an almost puritanical dedication to inoffensiveness,"" had mastered a kind of saving ""being-tess"" through the years when Joe Hank and wife Maureen (a dutiful Earth Mother, dutifully, eternally pregnant) hit the 60's alternate life-style (everyone but Joe Hank drifting through a muzzy chaos), and through his rages when daughter after daughter was born: ""A son makes a man feel he is part of the Great Chain of Being."" But a son will be born, only to die during Joe Hank's desert journey to converse with God. Mary makes her vow: ""I'm taking responsibility for his death."" Like Hamlet, she has her marching orders, but unlike the Prince, she closes the door on doubt. The climb to vengeance on a mountaintop gathers rage--and focuses to a gun's muzzle in the dark with the doomed sire's greeting: ""Mary--sweetheart!"" Worthen has the uncanny ability to sharp-edge and make accessible the sulfurous potency of Joe Hank--as Mary sees him, for example, naked and pouring tar at Padma: ""knifelike, glittering, dreadful."" And the character of Mary, tightrope-walking ""control"" transcends what could have been mere statement. With a lucidity of character and fine settings, a mesmerizing drama of deadly revenge, which mocks Hamlet's comparatively inefficient enterprise (at one point, a troop of actors performing Hamlet at a nearby college symbolically entertain Mary's frustrated friends as she sets off on her mountain journey). The flutter of psycho-philosophical tags here and there does not disturb the momentum of this fiery dramatic slash at some dark roots of incestuous fears, hatreds and strangled love.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1986
Publisher: Arbor House