IN A HIGH PLACE by Joanne Meschery
Kirkus Star

IN A HIGH PLACE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Tragicomedy--hinging on its interplay of the grotesque and the sentimental, the tender and the violent--is one of fiction's most difficult genres, with disastrous results when the right, delicately balanced tone is not maintained. (The most obvious example of just such a disaster is John Irving's new novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, p. 893.) So Meschery's fiction debut, while not completely successful, is an especially notable one, one that takes great risks, never falls on its face, and often delivers truly impressive scenes of quintessential tragicomic power. The ""high place"" of the title is the town of Tullease, in the California Sierras; it's where Lily, newly divorced, has come to make it alone with her three children. And a ""high place"" of over-confidence is where Lily begins this story: she takes the kids, plus neighbor-child Hugh, on a late-autumn mountain hike; Hugh becomes lost; and he's not again to be found (until spring--and the novel's end--when he reappears dead yet frozen perfect). The terribleness of this accident, of course, has you all prepared for a hard, rough book about Lily's expiation, her self-hatred, naivetÉ, and non-native unpreparedness; and, in fact, she does become life-threateningly ill immediately after Hugh's disappearance. But then the mood changes with startling suddenness. Tullease, threatened by a Disney plan to buy up the whole town for a ski-world project, is too tiny, isolated, and naturally difficult to live in for its people to become small-hearted. Hugh's mother Charlotte bears Lily no hatred. Lily's tall, 50-ish neighbor Deegan--a gallant fellow with bad teeth who'll become Lily's love interest and the book's real hero--comes by to nurse Lily, to haul her kids back from their father in San Francisco. And a general community solidarity abruptly pitches the novel into comedy. True, this lurch is slightly stomach-dropping at first: readers will hardly be ready for the fast shifts from quiet to painful to madcap. But Meschery has a true feel for equableness--the pearl of family tragicomedy. And soon one is fully won over by her honestly funny characters (a misanthropic young dentist and his girl-cousin/receptionist); by her nature-writing, which is lovely without striving for cosmic oneness; by her acknowledgement of the dignity of a small town's sentimentality; and by her fine sense for small wonders, (At a Disney parade in town, ""Lily watched her son fling his arms around Goofy's checkered waist, holding tight with his cheek pressed, eyes closed. Lily looked away. She'd always known John Paul liked this character. But she had no idea the child loved him."") Moreover, Meschery comes up with a big final scene--Deegan's springtime recovery of Hugh's body--which is worthy of a vintage Frank Copra movie in its full-bodied sad/comic warmth. The talent here is expansive and multiply-veined, hard at first to get itself under control. But once that happens, it runs on an exuberant, extravagant, and very frequently touching track. An important first novel.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster