Almost Heaven

Peter Kurth reviews 'Almost Heaven' by Marianne Wiggins.

Published September 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The real main character in Marianne Wiggins' apocalyptic new novel, "Almost Heaven," is neither Holden Garfield, the burned-out, bummed-out foreign correspondent who is ostensibly the story's protagonist, nor Melanie John, the fragile amnesiac with whom Garfield falls hopelessly and disastrously in love, but rather, as it happens, the weather. As in meteorology. In her earlier novels, the beautiful "John Dollar" and the lesser-known "Eveless Eden," Wiggins wrestled with the horrors of colonialism and the evils of post-Communist Romania, respectively. Here she's back on American soil in a story about "Memory. Passion. Loss." -- and lightning bolts. "Almost Heaven" springs fully armed from Wiggins' often portentous sensibility, and what better way to show it than through massing thunderclouds, drenching rain, pounding hail and a final, climactic tornado?

"A hailstorm strikes the way a plague of locusts does in the Bible," Wiggins writes, "like a tornado does -- in a band. You can be standing over there on the eighth hole halfway around the course, about to swing onto the ninth, and a light rain might start to fall where you are while over at the next hole a shaft of graupel will be rattling, rat-a-tatting turf with icy grapeshot." Thematically, the ever-menacing skies perfectly suit Wiggins' broody purpose and what appears to be her absolute despair at the state of the world. "All you can expect from life is the unexpected," she remarks. "The only thing you get with any luck is a chance to wrestle with it and pray it doesn't kill you first."

As to plot, "Almost Heaven" is part love story, part psychodrama and part balderdash, in no particular order. Holden Garfield -- why does Wiggins call him that? -- has just returned to the United States after eight years as a reporter for Newsweek in Eastern Europe, most recently in Srebrenica, where he's seen a Bosnian child nailed to a tree and heard the cries of mothers in his sleep. Already struggling with a soul-killing gloom, he is drawn unexpectedly to Richmond, Va., and the beautiful, tragic Melanie, the sister of his friend and mentor Noah John -- the hero of "Eveless Eden" -- who has seen her husband and four sons killed in an auto accident and suffers from "hysterical amnesia" as a result. Melanie is unable to remember anything that's happened to her since 1975, not that the date matters, since "the truth" doesn't become clear to anyone until a tornado strikes (significantly, at a monument to Jefferson Davis in Kentucky).

"A little late in piecing it together," Wiggins observes, "as soon as Holden sees the cloud he makes the silent prayer, '-- oh god, just let it thunder -- let it just be lightning, lord.'" You can't escape the feeling -- speaking of weather -- that "Almost Heaven" is itself a blast of hot air, but Wiggins writes so richly, so atmospherically, that you're willing to forgive her fancier flights. "Where do dreams go when they die?" she asks. Don't let sentences like that distract you. Just experience the book like a sudden squall and you'll be fine.

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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