Beaming Sonny Home

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sixty-eight-year-old widow Mattie Gifford leads a simple life in her small house in Mattagash, Maine (population 410), concerning herself with little more than her decision not to plant a garden this year and finding the piece for her picture puzzle that contains Jesus’ eye. Her tranquillity is disrupted by the arrival of her oldest daughter, Rita, who announces that Sonny Gifford is on television. Mattie’s other two daughters soon arrive. They all quickly discover that Sonny, Mattie’s only son, took three hostages—two women and a poodle—and is holding them in the trailer owned by his estranged wife, Sheila. As Sonny explains in a televised interview, he saw John Lennon on his television screen, and Lennon told him to “make a little noise on behalf of the poor folks in this here world.” He is not yet sure how taking hostages will help, but he says that he will let the media know when he has it figured out.

Rita and her two sisters, Gracie and Marlene, announce that they will stay with Mattie to help her deal with the deluge of reporters sure to show up at her house. None ever arrives, largely because one of Sonny’s friends informs the media that Sonny is an orphan. Sonny’s family members remain observers of events, their only source of information being the television. They speculate that Sonny actually is trying to get the attention of Sheila, who has run off to Atlantic City with another man and with Sonny’s dog. Sonny seems more concerned about the dog, and when he releases his first hostage, it is the poodle.

The hostage drama serves as a backdrop to the unfolding of relationships within Mattie’s family. Her thoughts reveal how those relationships have taken shape over the years. She sees her daughters as taking after her husband, Lester; only Sonny, with his artistic temperament, takes after her. Mattie thinks about her life with Lester, a philanderer, as she counsels her granddaughter Roberta about the wisdom of marrying her boyfriend now that she is pregnant. The interplay among the characters provides a witty look at small-town life, with its concerns about employment, finding the right mate from a limited pool of possibilities, making the break out of town, and ubiquitous gossip.