A psychiatrist with a major Mom problem grapples with guilt and rage in this latest exploration of gothic family ties from McGrath (Port Mungo, 2004, etc.).
“My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old,” Charlie Weir tells us in the opening sentence, “and I felt it was my fault.” That’s pretty much the whole bleak story right there. When his parents fought, Charlie tried to placate them; after his father left, he tried to comfort his increasingly gloomy, hard-drinking mother, while older brother Walter left him to deal with it. So of course Walter became a famous artist and Mom’s favorite. In 1979, when the main action begins, she has just died and left the family’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment to him. Charlie gets nothing, but he has bigger problems. He’s still haunted by his failure to prevent the suicide of his brother-in-law Danny seven years ago, and by his misbegotten decision to leave his wife Agnes, Danny’s sister, in the wake of that tragedy. Danny was one of a group of Vietnam veterans Charlie was treating; after his death, Charlie made his reputation writing about post-traumatic psychiatric disorders. “We gave special emphasis to the creation of a trauma story, the detailed narrative of the emotion, the context and the meaning of trauma,” he explains—and few readers will miss the overdetermined parallel to Charlie’s own narrative. As he embarks on an affair with a woman who is obviously also Walter’s mistress, Charlie reveals with nearly every lugubrious word that his basic problem lies far deeper than guilt over Danny’s death. We might care more about his original oedipal trauma, finally revealed in the novel’s closing pages, if Charlie didn’t seem throughout to be almost as cold and obtuse as everyone is always claiming.
Unpleasantly self-righteous characters gather accusingly around a narrator who’s awfully clueless for a shrink—though well written and shrewdly perceptive, as always, this isn’t one of McGrath’s more compelling efforts.