Deceit and disaster Down East
By Mickey Pearlman | May 29, 2005
Far be it for this reviewer to succumb ignominiously to stereotypes (like who doesn’t?), but I must admit my surprise at Cynthia Thayer’s newest novel, ”A Brief Lunacy.” Who expected this rural Maine writer (raised in Nova Scotia), who owns and manages an organic farm in Gouldsboro and usually writes tender stories (”Strong for Potatoes” and ”A Certain Slant of Light”), to surprise us with a real, old-time thriller? But she has, in fact, produced a story of madness, perverse sex, Gypsies, strangers in the night, late-middle-age romance, and lots of encoded and actual violence. I guess I forgot that Stephen King lives in Maine too; is it the water?
Fundamental to this novel is the question of secrets, and it’s no secret to Thayer or anyone else who has ever thought about it that each of us has them. What’s more intellectually intriguing is why we cling to them so voraciously and seem often willing to protect them by superimposing additional secrets on the tenuously buried original. The mind map, for all of us, looks like one of those convoluted M. C. Escher drawings of birds and fish that meld into each other while retaining some semblance of their original form. But it is the emotional cost of hiding those secrets and the expenditure of mental energy on that attempt that underscore Thayer’s message in this novel.
Here the secret-keeper is Carl, a retired surgeon, albeit with hands ”more suited to moving hay bales,” who is living in an art-filled house in the woods with Jessie, his longtime wife, a retired high school history teacher. Both parents are mourning and missing their mentally ill daughter, Sylvie, who, according to Carl, ”lies somewhere underneath all the layers of craziness” and is hospitalized in a ”loony bin,” somewhere in New England. Carl is a non-Jewish Holocaust survivor and, without disclosing too much of the plot, linked to the always roaming Gypsies of Europe, also a historically despised and hunted people, who cling to each other for safety and succor. (Not for nothing, as the Irish say, Thayer dedicates the book to ”the memory of the thousands of Roma, taken in the night from the Gypsy camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau to the gas chambers on August 2, 1944.”) Like the Jews, the Gypsies were, and are, often isolated and endlessly at risk.
As Thayer notes in an autobiographical press handout, ”Everyone in [my] Nova Scotia hometown kept secrets,” especially her own family. Her ”parents kept secrets for the same reason Carl . . . keeps them. Sometimes shame. Or memories too painful to mention. It was easier for my mother to talk about how important it is to place the fork on the left than to reveal that her father chose to jump off Niagara Falls, leaving his wife and five daughters destitute. It was more comfortable for my father to discuss whether Finnegans Wake was the greatest novel ever written than to admit that he’d slept with most of the gay tenors and baritones in Paris. . . . Only when he became an old man did I discover that because of his fluent German he liberated a concentration camp and spent two years in a house-to-house canvass of the German people about their knowledge of the atrocities.”
The novel also addresses (although in a more subliminal fashion) not only the issue of children immured in mental illness but the feelings of grief, loss, and responsibility among those of us who love them. In fact, Jessie and Carl open the door (literally) to an imperfect stranger precisely because the emotional doors to their daughter have been so formidably closed. The terror without is brought within by this well-drawn character, their daughter’s severely disturbed boyfriend, Jonah, an ”angry,” ”enraged,” ”weird,” and hateful being. As Carl muses in an after-the-fact epiphany, ”Is it too late to throw him out?” Much too late.
Thayer is also dealing here with how we cope with the disasters caused by other people’s choices (9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the AIDS epidemic, and global warming, to name a few) and those calamities resulting from our own decisions. Reality suggests that we can’t cope successfully in many cases. As Carl laments, ”I’m a doctor . . . but that doesn’t mean I’m God, now, does it? . . . I’ve never been able to fix Sylvie” although ”you’d think with all my medical training I’d be able to fix anything if I tried hard enough, and God knows with my daughter I’ve tried everything. Sometimes she’s right there, but more often than not she is somewhere else where sane people can’t go. . . . I read somewhere that many psychotics describe an identical crazy world and voices that use the same words. How could people who don’t even know one another come up with the same crazy place?” He tells Jessie, ”I don’t know the answers to these things. Do you think I always know what to do?”
We’ve all been there.
”A Brief Lunacy” is not a perfect book. I could quarrel with some of Thayer’s choices concerning plot, tone, and character. But what a treat it is to read a novel by someone who makes no secret of her interest in a deeper and often darker understanding of the world, a place where, as she knows, a brief lunacy can, and probably will, befall us all. You don’t need the apocalyptic destruction of a tsunami or the degradation spawned by the Nazis to hear those unspoken words in Jessie’s mouth: ”What after this? What do we do after this?”