Given Geoffrey Becker's previous publications -- a novel with St. Martin's Press and two award-winning short-story collections -- one would expect in "Hot Springs" (Tin House Books, 320 pages, $14.95) a more imaginative, less clichéd book.
The novel begins competently with 10-year-old Bernice observing her mother's mental breakdown. Some years later, Bernice, now a young mother herself, kidnaps her daughter from the conservative Christian couple who have paid her to let them raise Emily. As is generally the case with conservative Christians in contemporary literature, the Hardings and other worshippers in their church are portrayed as vacuous or, in David Harding's case, evil. Bernice thinks of "All those shiny white faces reeking of cologne and good wishes." Earlier she suspects her doctor, Peregrine Stine, "of being another born-again creep."
Escaping Colorado Springs with Emily, Bernice returns to Baltimore after a stop in Tucson. Stereotypes pile up. The seemingly upright, successful David Harding turns out to be a sadist. Earlier, he sexually assaults the pregnant Bernice. Bernice's artist-father in Baltimore presents the stereotype of the wise, though troubled professor who seduces, then marries, the star-struck pupil. In time, Eve, the student, now an artist, leaves him for C.C. Devereaux, rock musician. Little new is made either of the perverted religiose David Harding or of the rock musicians, sound men, artists (Bernice is another artist) and free spirits whose paths cross.
In one way, the stereotypes serve Becker's purpose. They place in greater relief the book's most endearing character, Emily. Desirous of a new name, for instance, the confused, charming Emily chooses "Pearl." In her capriciousness, she reflects Nathaniel Hawthorne's "elf-child" Pearl, who in her own "dark and wild peculiarity" could have said, as Becker's Emily-Pearl does, "I swallowed a demon." Because Emily-Pearl has the ability to surprise, one cares about her.
As the adults' moral and personal floundering makes her more appealing, however, it sometimes draws attention from her. A red herring near the end exemplifies this. When Pearl disappears from the house, Bernice's feckless boyfriend confronts a sleazy neighbor who "looked like a concentration camp survivor ... perhaps one who had made a deal for food." Has he abused the sleepwalking Emily? Another red herring late in the book concerns a sinkhole that appears in the street near Bernice's father's house.
Though doing so would no doubt have meant a bigger challenge, the author might have succeeded in "Hot Springs" had he avoided the false leads and presented more of the novel through the consciousness of Emily-Pearl or even David Harding's wife, Tessa. Described more fully, the two innocents' growing self-knowledge could have made interesting and meaningful the world of sorrow and ultimately hope in which they struggle.
Anthony Bukoski, the author of five short-story collections, lives and teaches in Superior, Wis.
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