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So here it is at last, the ostensible subject of Gray's latest stage (and, come the spring, screen) monologue Monster in a Box a first novel that reads like an existential autobiography and has his mother's suicide (a longtime Gray subject) as its core. Little Brewster North is on a Rhode Island beach with Mom when his uncle gives him a monkey mask from Bali, a WW II trophy, and we witness the birth of a child's imagination. A lyrical opening, but Brewster's happy childhood crumbles when Mom's zeal for Christian Science turns to craziness. Though wanting to end his emotional dependence on her (""it was too sticky and warm to be right""), Brewster cannot rouse himself to fly the coop until he's 25; then he finds a girlfriend (Meg) and acting work in upstate New York. He is on vacation in Mexico when Morn kills herself. This feeds Brewster's guilt, and a dark fear that Mom/Medea is not finished, and may somehow kill her children too. It's about here that we long for the distance that Lawrence achieved from his mother in his autobiographical Sons and Lovers; but then, mercifully, up pops the Gray of the monologues, with a wonderfully funny account of a failed attempt to bring experimental theater to Middle America. The work's second half becomes a roller-coaster ride as Brewster punishes himself for not saving Mom by arranging his own ""fast and total disorientation of the senses."" His breakdown begins in India, blooms in Amsterdam (he has sex in a gay bathhouse), and rages on in New York; his brazen affair with a groupie finally provokes a breakup with the loyal Meg. After some time on the road, he ends his story, arbitrarily, in the Grand Canyon. Although it fails as a novel, this sui generis work has some of the best writing about sex since Henry Miller and some of the best writing about a breakdown since Sylvia Plath; its eccentric charm should enlarge Gray's already considerable following.

Pub Date: May 14th, 1992
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf