"Living to Tell" by Antonya Nelson

From the author of "Nobody's Girl," a dazzling novel about a lovably screwed-up family reunited under one roof.

By Patricia Kean

Published June 20, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Readers of "Living to Tell," Antonya Nelson's remarkable third novel, might want to heed the following advice: Forget the plot, which lurches into melodrama, and savor the prose, which is lush and precise and often reads like poetry.

As the novel begins, we are airborne with a hilariously panicky Winston Mabie, who is understandably wary of the reception he will face when the plane lands. He has, after all, just finished serving five years for killing Bunny, his grandmother, by drunkenly slamming her Cadillac into the base of a stoplight. Witty and self-deprecating, Winston is "a particular[ly] blazing kind of pretty -- like Tony Curtis, their grandmother had claimed, sparkling ivories, deep baby blues, a dimple." He is also the least believable convict since Elvis gyrated his way through "Jailhouse Rock."

Waiting to meet him at the Wichita airport, with her two kids in tow, is his levelheaded yet secretly wanton sister, Emily, who moved back home after divorcing the cokehead who was sleeping with Mona, her sister, the youngest of the Mabies. (As if that weren't enough, Emily will soon be diagnosed with a terminal illness and be enjoying after-hours sex in a swimming pool at the Y.) Mona, who lives at home as well, not only tried to kill herself after being dumped by Emily's ex-husband but still sleeps with stuffed animals and married men, and continues to flirt, delicately, with self-annihilation. Their mother, devoted but ditzy, mired in nostalgia for her children's childhood, is slowly, symbolically going blind; her husband, the now-retired Professor Mabie, responds by gradually becoming deaf.

Doubtless, Nelson, who has also written two well-received books of short stories, had to somehow bring three generations of this family back under the same roof, but here she has attempted to cram the material of half a dozen novels into one. "Living to Tell" would be much more powerful if very little happened at all.

Free from the distractions of a hyperactive plot, readers might simply enjoy Nelson's startling similes (a toothpick twitches in the mouth of a young cop "as if he wished it were a needle, as if he could spit it with deadly accuracy into somebody's eyeball") or relish her riffs on subjects as diverse as the mind of a parrot, the distinctive rhythms of each family member's feet coming down the front stairs and the "secret marital paradox nobody told you about, the way you could be desperately, suicidally lonely, and yet have not one shred of privacy."

In fact, some of the most memorable parts of the book are those in which next to nothing takes place. When Professor Mabie crawls into a hospital bed with Betty Spitz, the platonic love of his life who is now dying, he simply lies there. "'Finally,' Betty said, gaze held upward. And he knew what she meant. At last they had arrived in bed together. For years they'd circumnavigated physical touch, both aware of its loadedness."

Likewise, when Nelson flashes back to Winston's accident, the scene derives its force not from his grandmother's death, which feels contrived, but from the tale Bunny is telling at the exact moment the car hits that pole.

Spurred on by the colorful breath mints she had just seen at lunch, Bunny is remembering something that nearly happened when she visited a hotel bathroom as a young girl: Without warning, a hand reached out from under the stall next to hers, grabbed her ankle and then, just as abruptly, let her go. She emerged from the incident almost unscathed, left with just the shadowy imprint of a man's hand on her white socks, and a memory that altered her in ways large and small. Unfortunately, what comes next is about as subtle as cooking with chef Emeril Lagasse. Bam! Before you know it, it's bye-bye Bunny.

Despite these flaws, "Living to Tell" is an extraordinary achievement. At her best, Nelson, who begins her novel with a quote from "To the Lighthouse," blends a lyricism reminiscent of Virginia Woolf with a biting wit all her own. As she traces the histories and mysteries of the Mabie clan, filtering events through each character's perceptions and pitting each one's version of reality against another's, not only does Nelson paint a richly hued portrait of a family, she creates a world the reader is reluctant to leave.

Patricia Kean

Patricia Keans has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lingua Franca and other publications.

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