THE CACTUS GARDEN by William Dieter


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From Dieter (Beyond the Mountain, Hunter's Orange), a mournful, self-indulgent remembrance of things past, as four long-separated siblings drive a thousand miles together to visit their ailing father. When Irvin Donner, 75 years old, has a stroke in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the doctors tell his wife that he has only a few days to live, and she calls up his four children from a previous marriage. All of them are in their 40s: Tess, in Tucson; Doc, in Denver; DeeJay, in an LA suburb; and spoiled Steward, the youngest, in Seattle, Since Tess refuses to fly, they all agree to meet in Denver and then drive the rest of the way to LaCrosse together, and their journey turns into a kind of encounter group, with the reader listening in. It turns out that during the war, their mother, Mattie, suddenly uprooted them all from LaCrosse (where Irvin farmed and worked in a sawmill) and took them away forever. The exact reasons for this remain vague--Irvin was given to rages, during which he would beat the children--but with Mattie they led a wandering existence while she worked menial jobs to make ends meet. Now, the four of them are fairly successful, and Mattie spends a year with each one of them, rotated like alfalfa. As they progress north from motel to motel, they get to know each other again (although why they've not seen each other in 10 years also remains vague), relive childhood memories (at one point putting on a silly family skit for a befuddled motel clerk) and ask each other the obvious question--why are they going to the deathbed of a man they all loathe, particularly Tess. who suffered the brunt of his anger? The reason, it seems, stems from a sense of duty, of ""not running away."" This is a flat, monotonic, anticlimactic novel--it ends just as the children reach the hospital, but before they even see the comatose Irvin, who is in any event going to live longer than anticipated, and maybe even recover a little--and Dieter's central device (the car trip from Denver) is unwieldy and unbelievable. Altogether: a portentous soap opera without enough really dirty laundry to make things interesting.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1986
Publisher: Atheneum