- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 3, 2004

SPLENDID OMENS

By Robley Wilson

Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95, 274 pages

REVIEWED BY LORENA BOTTUM



There are things that you can do — maybe even should do — in short stories that will not work in novels: characters developed with merely a suggestive phrase, actions insinuated rather than described, explanations hinted rather than expounded.

The things that make a short story feel atmospheric would make a novel feel annoying. Robley Wilson, a writer of atmospheric short fiction, has just written a full-length novel called “Splendid Omens,” and annoying seems the only word for it.

“Splendid Omens” is a book about jealousy. Or maybe about sex. Or, more probably, about jealousy over sex.

The novel backs and fills, and like a short story leaves too much up in the atmospheric air, but, basically, it seems to be about this: The family in America has broken down beyond repair. That’s a good thing, you understand, since old-fashioned familial relations seem always to have been merely devices for sexual repression.

But, regardless, the family is dead in America these days. And the book’s narrator, an aging academic named Alec Thompson now living in Chicago, didn’t realize all this in time to have the really good, conscienceless sex his recently deceased best friend, a painter from Maine named Webb, got to have with, well, just about everybody over the course of his tomcat life.

So who can blame Alec for spending his days of mourning in fits of jealous wonderment?

Certainly not the book’s author. An aging academic now living in Florida, Robley Wilson was for many years a teacher of creative writing at the University of Northern Iowa, where he edited the North American Review and published several volumes of short stories, including “Living Alone” (1978), “Dancing for Men” (1983) and, most recently, “The Book of Lost Fathers” (2001).

Along the way, he also published some poetry and a first novel, “The Victim’s Daughter,” in 1991.

Mr. Wilson’s latest work begins with Alec, a retired English professor, traveling to Maine to see his lifelong friend Webb Hartley, a painter about to marry for the fourth time. Webb’s fiancee is a much younger woman — apparently named Prudence — who has been living with Webb for five years, has borne him one child, and has another on the way.

But, upon his arrival in Maine, Alec discovers that the wedding is off — primarily because Webb had dropped dead that morning in front of all the guests.

The somewhat-surprised Alec is thereupon given a letter that Webb had left in the event of his death, a letter asking Alec to go in person to tell Webb’s first wife, Jenny, about Webb’s passing.

The subplot here is important, although the reader gets it only in drips and drops scattered throughout the book. Jenny, it turns out, was Alec’s own fiancee before Alec came home one day to find her in bed with Webb. So Alec broke up with Jenny, and Webb married her instead.

But — and here is one of the novel’s key denouements, which I reveal only because I wouldn’t want you to read the book in the first place — Jenny wasn’t really having sex with Webb.

Well, yes she was. But it didn’t count as sex, because she had just had a very bad day and needed a comforting orgasm, and Webb was the only man around that evening. Alec surely couldn’t be expected to object to that, and so his whole subsequent life has been based on a misunderstanding.

After staying a few days in Maine with Prudence — just long enough to be sexually aroused by her pregnant condition and to imagine he’s fallen in love with her — Alec heads off to California to confront Jenny and the mess he’s made of his life by overreacting to a triviality.

Jenny is a horse-rancher and an earthy enough figure to straighten Alec out. She also mentions that Amanda — the daughter she had with Webb, and a girl Alec remembers fondly from visits during her childhood — has grown up and now goes under another name. She’s called Prudence, these days.

Shock, horror — Webb was about to marry his own daughter. And he’d already knocked her up twice, anyway.

But wait: Jenny has one last revelation. Everything is all right, because Webb merely acted as Amanda/Prudence’s father. The girl was actually the result of sex between Jenny and Alec back before they broke up.

That leaves Alec with a dilemma, of course, as he flies back to Maine — for now he knows that it was his own pregnant daughter he found so arousing after Webb’s death. But the reader is left, on the final page, with the assurance that Alec will do the right thing.

“Splendid Omens” is a dreadful, trifling book. But Mr. Wilson is at least consistent in the sexual morality he chronicles. If the whole idea of the family is a repressive delusion, and all that’s real is a person’s self-expression through sex, then a man doesn’t just have the right to sleep with his daughter. He has a positive duty to do so.

Another reason “Splendid Omens” should have been a short story is that it would have been easier to slip into the recycling bin with the rest of the discarded paper.

Lorena Bottum is a Washington writer.

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