MOTHER OF GOD by Michael Downing


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How a family incubates madness is portrayed in Downing's second novel (A Narrow Time, 1987), a badly out-of-focus group portrait. A middle-class housewife in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a Catholic, has an affair with her husband's business partner and gives birth to his child. Twenty years later, the husband tells the kid he is not his biological father; the young man goes on a rampage, spray-painting a synagogue, and soon after his mother has him committed. That's a straightforward enough story-line, but Downing muddies the waters by concentrating on inessentials (such as the husband's tangled business affairs), juggling the time-frames (three long flashbacks to 1963), and constantly shifting the viewpoint back and forth among the husband, Arthur Adamski; his wife Sylvia; her lover Martin Parris; their offspring Stephen; and Stephen's siblings Jane, Alison, and Artie. It's hard to get a fix on these people; they don't have too good a fix on each other either (""You are honestly. . .of the Jewish faith? I'm so surprised,"" says Sylvia to her lover, after she's said something anti-Semitic). What slowly becomes clear is that Arthur is a ditherer and a wimp, and Sylvia is both deluded and manipulative, while Stephen is a man in shock, a religious man in shock (""Stephen lived with Jesus as the precedent for acting as a good man in the world""), but not a man who ""thinks he's Jesus."" (That is Sylvia's self-serving lie). His one spectacular act (grabbing two red-hot burners off the stove) is a reaction to his mother's forging his name on voluntary commitment papers. Meanwhile, the only interesting question (what prompted Arthur to inform Stephen of his paternity) is never answered, though we do learn where Arthur will buy replacement burners for the stove. Dull, awkward, humorless; hard going.

Pub Date: May 3rd, 1990
Publisher: Simon & Schuster