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THE BOOK OF MERCY by Kathleen Cambor

THE BOOK OF MERCY

By Kathleen Cambor

Pub Date: June 12th, 1996
ISBN: 0-374-11550-8
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 Cambor's first outing is an old-fashioned, frequently moving, always sweepingly readable tale of one family's long-extended suffering, decline, and final qualified hope. Born early this century in Pittsburgh of rigidly German-Catholic immigrant parents, Edmund Mueller rebels by becoming a fireman instead of following his cabinet-maker father, then by choosing to marry a flighty girl named Fanny, who wants more than anything to become a dancer. The couple have a boy named Paul, then a girl named Anne, neither of whom Fanny shows a natural desire to care for--and in fact when her daughter is a year or so old, Fanny abandons the brood for a life on the road, dropping in unexpectedly now and again, then relying on postcards, those also soon trickling away. Its heart thus torn out, the family that's left behind begins its long, tortured effort to stay alive. While Edmund throws himself into his firefighting, Paul grows inward, and finally leaves home to join the Dominicans, eventually becoming a priest sent off to distant parts of the world. As for Anne, the minute she finishes ``Catholic school'' she's off to college, and after that medical school, leaving Edmund in the empty old house alone- -where he grows steadily more eccentric, then neurotic, then psychotic, reading books on astrology and alchemy, finally transforming his basement into an alchemist's lab where he spends years trying to distill the magical substance (the Philosopher's Stone) that will bring back happiness and the past. Only after Anne has become a doctor (with a son of her own) will the family be reunited and Edmund rescued from his madness, although even then only amid tragedy intensified and renewed. The publishers mention Cambor's having studied writing with Donald Barthelme, and perhaps that great innovator stirs in his rest as his student flowers forth, with deserved if ironic success, into the fictional not-new.