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Soddenly sentimental novel by a recent winner of the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction (Old Wives' Tales, 1984). Married late in life, Clive Bill and his wife Mary Alice, of Mount Vedalia, Kentucky, are killed when a train hits their car; they leave behind only their two children, a boy and a girl, neither of them imbued with great mental gifts. Convinced that all they have in the world is each other (though they're financially well off), Murana Bill becomes surrogate mother to her younger brother Lyman Gene, sees him successfully through high school, and suffers stoically when he goes off to Viet Nam. What happens to him there is never known, but he returns mute and in a state of profound infantile regression. Murana continues to mother him, and, finding that his sole satisfaction in life is to eat, feeds him in loving, profligate excess. The country gothic bizarrerie of their secret life together ends at last with the demise of Lyman, still speechless, of a weak heart, weighing in at a wondrous 423 pounds. What is to become of Murana, now left alone (""Her life was fresh out of miracles"")? A friendly priest arranges for her to go to Louisville, where a post in an old people's home awaits her. The home's director is Lucille, a flamboyant and life-embracing woman who ""adopts"" the shy and neurotically withdrawn Murana, pummels and jokes her out of her shell, brings her to the birth of a new life. Trouble is, Lucille then gets cancer, dies; and Murana is left orphaned once again, but this time with the prospect of knowing more about how to face life. Rustic characters and down-home voices that might still work in some short fiction serve mainly to dampen and cloy in the longer haul here. ""The shameful fact is,"" says the good priest to Murana, ""I could never quite bring myself to give up bein' a human being. And if you'll forgive me sayin' so, I'm still mighty good at it, too."" All in all, earnest melodrama served up with buckets of stale sugar.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
Publisher: Viking