Home Bodies by Alicia Miller. Illustrated by Ann McCarthy. Atlantic Monthly Press: 255 pages; 13.95.
Summer light and warmth command a slowing-down, a greater ease of being. Our clothes are lighter, our movements languid. I spend most of my time reading or dreaming out at the horizon with nearby work left untouched. Sometimes--maybe I fantasize it in fitful late morning dreams--I am positive great events are in store, ready to spill out like birthday surprises.
"Home Bodies" reminds me of this summer feeling; some kind of summer magic seems to lurk behind the scenery like the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
And the plot of "Home Bodies" is similar: through random occurrences, natural disasters and even rearranged furniture, the population of Lethem, Ohio awakens from a sort of middle class sleep. The characters begin to see clearly, fall in love with the right people and, in general, live life more appreciatively.
The novel opens with the river that flows through Lethem. It "lies flat as a mirror," suggesting, perhaps, that another, looking-glass version of the town lies below its surface. Mirrors come up often: Katherine Watters looks into a mirror this summer and sees a stranger. Closet romance writer and depressed housewife Irene Newcomb looks into her mirror and sees Jennifer, her glamorous heroine. "How peculiar," she thinks.
We are privy to every character's fantasy of romance or chocolate or sex, and every misgiving of ordinary life. Alicia Miller tours us through the inner lives of Katherine Watters, flame haired college instructor and mother; Irene Newcomb and her husband Harry, who go through the motions of a lonely marriage; their deranged son Buddy; Mona Edwards, bulimic and town event organizer; and Robin, a college graduate who works as a house painter--women tell him he's phony.
All these people battle a sort of "phoniness"--or inability to be true to themselves. They can't seem to break out of their molds of husband or wife, or even lunatic. But when a summer hurricane sweeps through town, everyone emerges rearranged somehow, as if they just needed a little shaking up.
"The world can fly away," Harry muses, "nothing can hold anything down." His son Robin, in the wise way of a town crazy, "imagines pieces of domestic life floating over the treetops." To illustrate this further, artist Ann McCarthy punctuates the story with drawings of furniture flying through the air.
McCarthy's pencil drawings are brilliant; each is a piece of everyday life set off for our contemplation: Robin's crooked teeth, a zucchini, the reflective light of swimming pool water, a hairdresser's expression. The drawings underscore Miller's theme of taking a closer look at the seemingly ordinary.
Miller's own art is comical, each character captured in an awkward moment of change--bright portraits done with the eye of a cartoonist. And the book's format, too, has a cartoon-like quality. The mottled green color and leather-brown corners of the large, nearly square paperback suggest a family album. Inside, like a children's book, the print is large and the pages done in double columns.
This unusual scrapbook features highlights of these people in transition. Katherine Watters's inner life is especially funny; she thinks in terms of bumper stickers ("Don't follow me, I'm lost too!"), headlines ("Victim of Adage 'Never Too Rich Or Too Thin' Fades Away"), and soap opera voice-overs ("Will the tall woman with the peculiar hair ever find the image she seeks?"). Buddy Newcomb finds self expression masquerading as a Rastafarian, a hippy, Wally Cleaver. Sometimes these people look like midwestern suburbanites from outer space.
Underneath this Twilight Zone comedy floats that summertime feeling that, gosh, maybe with the passing of a warm thunderstorm the furniture of our lives will rearrange itself and life will look freshly washed and newly painted. Maybe the sunny epiphanies of "Home Bodies" give it too happy an ending. But this is summer, right?