John Yohalem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

Clark Blaise's first novel ["Lunar Attractions"] covers some familiar ground both for him and for us…. [The] growing-up of a precociously observant, highly imaginative narrator in the South (or anywhere else) is tried and true, as is the alienation felt by such a character. But the ploy is not worn out, and Mr. Blaise does some original things with it.

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David Greenwood, son of a French Canadian traveling salesman and a German-educated Englishwoman, identifies with the aliens in the science fiction that floods the radio and television of the 1940's and 50's. He's a natural outsider, plump and unhealthy, asthmatic and intellectual, growing up pensive in swampy central Florida. Real life is sordid, but the life of the mind is rich and full—so full, indeed, of miscellaneous information that David is diagnosed an idiot-savant. He's not crazy, but he is given to strange fantasies. A mudfish he's killed becomes, in his mind, either a creature from space, or the spirit of the sister his mother miscarried, or possibly both—anyway, a reason for terror and guilt. And the discovery of his father's real name on a document sets off paranoid fits.

The scene then shifts to a Northern city with a museum and a baseball team to lure. David into darkest reality. There are school friends of similar intellect but bewildering sophistication; there are sexual observations and the irresistible comprehension, which has been dawning all the time, of his parents' humanity. But "Lunar Attractions" stops short of a traditional concluding image: the optimistic discovery of a sense of mission, perhaps. We leave David on the threshold of nothing specific—except a maturity capable of producing these remarkable backward glances.

Mr. Blaise's narrative rhythm is impeccable. He has the knack, the storyteller's instinct for keeping the ball rolling, for tossing in just enough background at just the right moment to keep us curious without giving the game away. His dank, rural Florida suffocates mind and lungs. The relationships he presents puzzle, elate, amuse, alarm. David's obsessions, if not always reasonable, are never dull. Mr. Blaise is a thoughtful and entertaining writer, a rediscoverer of childhood with a good memory for his reactions the first time he passed through. "If my first thirteen years have any meaning, it is this: two worlds exist. One we create; it is ours alone, private and untranslatable. The other is always there; we do not control it. It has never changed; we can only discover it. There are gates to it everywhere, and sometimes the two worlds slide together."

However self-centered, David does not really escape or even ignore the world—it has such people in it! The walk-ons in "Lunar Attractions" are among the book's principal delights. Swiftly sketched, they fill a few pages with their imposing, intriguing presence, then drop from sight abruptly—as a child might notice an awesome adult, filling the view and then, inexplicably, gone. Each one—teachers and salesmen, a conjuror and a stamp dealer, friends and policemen—has his aria, but it is always a single side of an implicit three dimensional image.

The figures up front get more detailed treatment. All the attention of an anxious child, eager for signals and confused by them, is lavished on the earthy father and the gray, reserved mother. Through eyes obsessive in childhood, then narrowed in adolescence from anatomy to character to psyche, two masterful portraits merge. But the child in this trinity is not of proportional stature. David is a curious lump, a bundle of perceptions and social miseries, only latently adventurous. He lacks the authority to carry a Bildungsroman on his shoulders. His experiences resemble those of a Dickensian child, crushed but observant. Yet he serves ably enough as the focus of his creator's mordant wit.

Mr. Blaise is subtly witty—not funny, but humorous, sometimes grotesque, catching incongruities, that a joke can lead to pain, that a tragedy can become farce, that pitiful characters can achieve grandeur without warning. He brings home a sensitive child's bewilderment at repeated affronts to his sense of justice, of drama, of propriety. (p. 14)

Mr. Blaise's creative tools are all first-rate, but he is not yet a perfect craftsman. His story, built of so many complex elements, lacks a unifying theme despite his narrative skill, which is considerable. On the technical side, his many pretty figures of speech sometimes don't quite mean what he wants them to mean….

Far more important, though, Clark Blaise is a born storyteller and an easy writer to like, to savor. He has pondered his youth deeply and his reflections recall youths other than his own. If he is not yet an ideal constructor of large-scale fiction, his book is nonetheless engaging, stirring and hard to put down. (p. 32)

John Yohalem, "Pensive in Central Florida," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 22, 1979, pp. 14-32.

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