CLARA'S HEART by Joseph Olshan


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Sluggish prose, banal characters, and a clumsy design stamp this sentimental story of adolescent angst as the work of an amateur. For his novelistic debut, Olshan reminds us that, yes, even golfers get the blues, especially reluctant ones like David Hart, the wimpy young protagonist of this treacly tale. Forced by his lawyer father to take golf lessons, ignored by his trend-chasing mother, this sniveling child of divorce discovers love and gains courage in the arms of his surrogate parent Clara Mayfield, the Jamaican housekeeper, whose voodoo smarts and lyrical patois don't prevent her from acting like an updated version of the Black Mammy of the Old South. During the four years covered in the novel, Clara's charge--the prepubescent Massa Hart--continually tests her selfless devotion by prying into her past. Her secrets, partly revealed in the contents of her guarded red suitcase, sustain what little dramatic interest there is in this suburban soap opera. The bulk of the novel concerns David's response to parental neglect: due to an odd custody settlement, his mother spends most nights away from their Westchester manse, while his father swings in his new Manhattan digs far from the rolling lawns of Rye. In a mit, David cranks the AC on full blast in his room or pigs out on Clara's irresistible cooking. He also discovers, a bit prematurely, the wonders of sex, though his first encounters are with a vacuum cleaner. At the end of the book, when David must move with his mother and her new husband to an avocado ranch in California, the wise woman imparts her sad history which prompts in him (David Hart) a ""change of heart"" and a sense of forgiveness, though it's not at all clear why this tiresome brat should be forgiving her rather than vice versa. All of this might seem like the stuff of a Phillip Roth romp, but the cloying Olshan is merely an unintentional humorist. He's so sincere, he doesn't recognize many of his characterizations as racial stereotypes (David admires the ""less inhibited"" sexuality of the Jamaicans). The irrelevant details and gratuitous social commentary which clutter Olshan's first effort prevent him from attending to more fundamental flaws: implausabilities and a thoroughly confused narrative point of view.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1985
Publisher: Arbor House