THE LETTER LEFT TO ME by Joseph McElroy

THE LETTER LEFT TO ME

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KIRKUS REVIEW

McElroy (Women and Men, Lookout Cartridge) works only with a short-story-sized kernel here. The narrator is a bright teen-ager living in Brooklyn Heights after the war. His father dies young, leaving the son a letter of advice and counsel. To the family (who get to read the missive as well), the letter is so fetching that they go so far as to send it to the Dean of Students of the college where the boy has become a precocious freshman. The Dean in turn makes copies for the entire class--a barbarous, step-wise dilution of a privacy and a grief. McElroy, though subtle as ever, keeps you unsure about how private and grievous the letter ever was--and that, you realize, is the crux of the book: how reception determines content, the old Heisenberg thing, aging a little by now as an excuse for relativism. McElroy's style here shares with Harold Brodkey's (p. 1177) a self-exhausting reach, the plain narrative situation a way constantly to be defining common yet ineffable words and emotional states under the not-always unstammering light of intellection: ""I love him for a time, he doesn't see himself from anywhere but inside, he has found himself ready in manner and attention to put his grief into action. In my tears in the guest room I know I won't steadily feel this, but do now knowingly. Does he not see himself at all?"" Replete with breathy italics, these paragraphs stop dead and must be recranked constantly--giving the book a peculiar whirring, even whining rhythm. Just as intrusive is McElroy's impressionism, with its conscious originality--as though whatever it has has never before been quite so parsingly fixed: ""I breathed grease cooking, meat grease, bacon grease, bacon, an onion sweetness of meatloaf to overwhelm time and the waste of time--and hot coffee, a comfort of cigarette smoke, the air of pitcher beer sitting, a wheaty after-spread of Breakfast Out."" This over-style is most bothersome toward the book's touching end--the father's letter is read by the son's college mates: the thinning-out of emotion but also the underlining of it through different eyes--when McElroy's rather steely, inherent theory of his book begins to run counter to its actual effect. Interesting as all McElroy is bound to be--but a gilded lily if ever there was one.

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf