(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

This collection of refined, elegant stories is divided into three sections, entitled “Marriages,” “Mysteries,” and “Desires.” John L’Heureux is an accomplished writer whose success is evident from the list of magazines in which his work has been published. All but two of these stories appeared earlier in The Ark River Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Fiction, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Penthouse. Of the two not previously published, “Love and Death in Brighams” is the better. It is an interesting treatise on the mechanics of writing a story, which incorporates into the story itself an analysis of how a story should be written. The other new piece, “The Anatomy of Desire,” appears to be a summation of the collection, but is so obviously symbolic that it seems out of step with everything else in the book. L’Heureux is a much better writer when he maintains the subtlety and understatement that make his fiction so unusual.

Desires is a collection that deals with the obsessions of existence—the desires and passions of people. L’Heureux’s narrative is most effective when it reveals the complexity of those obsessions through an alternation between their intensity and the relief from that intensity. In “The Priest’s Wife,” the priest’s mother learns that her daughter-in-law, Katherine Stone, is planning to divorce her son and marry her ski instructor. Grief-stricken, she goes home and cries until ten o’clock, when Kojak comes on. She is a typical L’Heureux character, balancing her participation in the enormity of life’s toils with an episode of escapist television fare. Although the narrator of “The Priest’s Wife” observes that “everything recedes into uncertainty except that we die and we do not wish to die,” this fiction explores what happens in the meantime. Life is by turns painful, deliriously happy, and excruciatingly boring. The relief from the intense obsessions of life may be mistaken for a lack of sincerity, but it is in fact the secret to survival.

L’Heureux’s characters are obsessed, and in most cases, their obsessions are strange indeed. In “The Anatomy of Bliss,” Honey-Mae Calder’s husband almost loses his mind because he cannot prevent his wife from covering the walls of their home with tiny writing. Mr. Woolbridge, of “Married Love,” is obsessed with building the perfect fire in a fireplace that smokes up the room, while his wife is consumed by her imaginary love affair with Chuck Barris of The Gong Show. Kate Stone, the wife of the man who was almost a priest, is haunted by her childhood memories of her grandfather’s observation that she had a face like a woman in a novel. In “Consolations of Philosophy,” Shelley Kamm coldly and methodically seduces the doctor attending her dying father as he quotes the great philosophers to explain and justify his physical prowess. Leonora, of “Brief Lives in California,” obsessed with being superior, loses her mind because her professor judges her work to be average, and her mother reaffirms that Leonora could have been something as she aims the gun at the professor’s chest and pulls the trigger.

The story that best reveals L’Heureux’s subtlety of theme and technique is “Roman Ordinary,” a short meditation on His Holiness Pope Paul IV, an ordinary saint, who does what he has to all day long, “and at night he dances.” Every night, he contemplates the collection of human bones in his armoire, laid out in perfect order—his bones. Every night he escapes from his “make-believe life of interviews and reports and decisions,” twirling and spinning until his flesh disappears and his garments float fresh and free from all worldly concerns. The psychic existence of the Pope prevails as his yearning for freedom from the corporeal life lifts him out of his flesh and bones. As in all of L’Heureux’s stories, the character is transformed in accord with his private obsessions. The Pope’s fascination with his collection of bones—a representation of his desire to be free of the minutiae of his existence—converts him...

(The entire section is 1694 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

America. CXLV, December 12, 1981, p. 387.

Best Sellers. XLI, July, 1981, p. 131.

Booklist. LXXVII, April 1, 1981, p. 1078.

Library Journal. CVI, April 1, 1981, p. 814.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 12, 1981, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXIX, February 20, 1981, p. 89.