HOSTAGES TO FORTUNE by William Humphrey


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Meditations on grief, guilt, suicide, and survival--as writer Ben Curtis, 50, returns to his beloved fishing lodge after two years of relentless tragedy. Ben is seen fishing alone; old acquaintances at the exclusive lodge greet him nervously, some not recognizing the bearded, haggard Ben at all; there are hinting references to death, to Ben's best pal Tony, to an estranged wife. Then a remorseless series of recollections takes over. The happy memories are vivid but brief: Ben's college chumship with blue-blooded, outdoors-loving Tony, who introduced him to the patrician pleasures of the lodge; their joyful marriages to like-minded wives. The recent tragedies soon predominate, however--starting with a quick mention of Tony's daughter's suicide, which was followed by Tony's increased drinking, the deterioration of his marriage. And then comes the novel's primary focus: the suicide by hanging of Ben's 18-year-old son Anthony, an intense but normal-seeming freshman at Princeton. Ben recalls each detail of the post-suicide nightmare. He wrestles with the inevitable whys and what-ifs: ""Had he been less self-concerned, more attentive, had he been sensitive to them, surely there must have been signals, warning signs, distress calls, indirect pleas for help, symptoms. . . . What ought he to have noticed that he had been obtuse to? That was not a question that occurred to him now at intervals; it was constant, unrelenting, as involuntary as drawing breath."" He records the fizzling of his already-strained marriage (wife Cathy won't accept the suicide's reality); he muses on the larger social problem of teenage suicide; he remembers the final blow of friend Tony's iceboating suicide--which pushed Ben himself to contemplate, and then attempt, self-annihilation as the only remedy for ""advanced and irreversible sclerosis of the soul."" And finally--after some inspiring fishing, a consoling box lunch, and a few wise words from a fellow angler (whose father committed suicide)--Ben rejoins the club, the human race, stoic and detached but accepting: ""Things were as they were and what would be would be and the end would come when it came. He would just keep rolling along--no rest till the Judgment Day."" Humphrey (Home from the Hill, Farther Off from Heaven) doesn't allow Ben to probe deeply enough to shed much light on the trio of suicides here; there's a great deal of salt-in-wound repetition--and no real drama--along the way to Ben's emergence from his understandably acute depression. Yet the sincerity and restrained grace of Humphrey's plain, mournful prose make this a gravely emphatic evocation of sheer misery: depressing, monotonic, but steady and authentic.

Pub Date: Sept. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Delacorte