Riven Rock

Peter Kurth reviews 'Riven Rock' by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Published January 28, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When was the last time you read a work of historical fiction that left you completely satisfied? Not a novel "set in the past," but the fictionalized account of actual persons who lived, breathed and -- in this case -- went mad in the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif.? In "Riven Rock," his seventh novel, T. Coraghessan Boyle has taken the depressing story of Stanley R. McCormick, one of the sons and heirs of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaper, and turned it into a thrilling, romantic, careening tale of love, redemption and the rewards of the faithful heart. It's no small feat when you consider that Stanley McCormick was a paranoid schizophrenic and sexual maniac who spent the better part of his adult life locked away from women in a lonely, California-Moorish castle -- the "Riven Rock" of the book's title -- surrounded by a team of male doctors and attendants who were his only companions for 20-odd years.

The case, while not famous, was certainly known in its time, particularly after 1929, when Stanley McCormick's wife, Boston socialite and suffragist Katherine Dexter McCormick, sued to gain full control of her husband's person and estate. She fought not only the Chicago McCormick dynasty but a slew of psychiatrists, lawyers, male nurses and hangers-on whose livelihoods all depended on McCormick's remaining insane and in need of their care. The never-consummated, purely emotional marriage of Stanley and Katherine is the meat and heart of "Riven Rock," balanced and mirrored by the adventures of Eddie O'Kane, Stanley McCormick's hard-drinking, philandering, guilt-ridden Irish nurse (presumably modeled on McCormick's real-life attendant, Kenneth McKillip, and one of the only characters in the novel whose name has been changed). O'Kane is earth and flesh to Stanley and Katherine's romantic idealism. This is a novel about love and sex and the way they work, or don't, together.

"All her life Katherine Dexter had been disappointed in men," Boyle writes about his brainy heroine (one of the first women graduates of MIT, who ultimately left her husband's entire fortune to her alma mater). "She didn't like to generalize, but if she did she would find the average man to be false, petty, childish and smug, an overgrown playground bully distended by nature and lack of exercise until he fitted his misshapen suits and the ridiculous bathing costume he donned to show off his ape-like limbs at the beach." Boyle is one of our finest descriptive writers, an Irishman through and through. It's hard to know what impresses most, his stunningly unexpected way with a phrase -- "He'd led the chase through three cars, bobbing and weaving in his maniacal slope-shouldered gait, apparently looking to run right on up through the length of the train, over the tender and across the nose of the locomotive to perch on the cowcatcher and catch insects in his teeth all the way to California" -- or his bold romanticism and lyric tone: "It was the key, the first principle, the beginning. And so much was engendered there, the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, because the key fit and the key turned, and from that moment on he wooed her with the sweetest phrases from the driest texts, with reform, the uplifting of the poor, the redistribution of wealth and the seizing of the means of production for the good and glory of the common man." This is a splendid book, a noble achievement, a work of art.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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