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Caught in the Parent Trap

Standard Dreaming by Hortense Calisher Arbor House 127 pp $5 95

By Celia B. Betsky

BACK IN THE '50's little blonde poppets land parent-traps for their unsuspecting elders and the sacred foursome of the American Family ended up living happily ever after. During the 60's the scene began to change. Guys and gals rebelled against their moms and dads. Both sides waved good bye to each other over a widening generation gap. Parents still holding up their hands in threatening gesture of authority. Children flicking a last piece of chewing gum or a motocross magazine disdainfully across the gulf.

As parental authority weakened adolescent criticism became stronger. Among twelve year olds as well as college students, a mood of resistance and finally total rejection took over. Young people found new ways of exposing their parents shaky value-systems, through music, sexual freedom and drugs they discovered a means of escaping a world they despised. By the time of this season's Standard Dreaming, Hortense Calisher's story about a father searching for his lost son (Harvard drop-out, naturally), the parents have become the lonely and confused generation. They "cast nets for blame", because they are ready to accept that the problems of the young are the fault of the old, wondering whether they are mad to remain hopeful during what appear to be the death throes of their society. While "it was their young who raged at it, or mourned."

Choosing for her backdrop the chaotic bustle of New York City Calisher watches her sad little T-group of deserted parents drift from one home to another apartment building to hotel Harlem to Upper East Side doctors office to bedroom endlessly discussing their problems and trying to help one another contact their scattered off spring Only loneliness keeps them together At times tempers flare; class hatred racial prejudices and religious differences contribute to the tense atmosphere. Calisher mocks her characters as "prodigal fathers not received", and dangles them above a generational abyss made up of paradoxes and contradictions based on the dichotomy of young and old, using them to represent all forms of societal and psychological troubles in the world today. Sickle-cell anemia apparently can't be mentioned without bringing in miscegenation, heroin addiction, and the ghetto experience. Twin "babies" age twenty-eight, spell double-trouble night down the line: homosexuality, incest, fake suicides and "dressing up" together; they put the Bobbseys to shame

IF CALISHER'S NOVELS READS like a short story that leads nowhere for a long time, and her people come across as flat and flimsy (one questions, analytical cliche though it may be, if her parents were ever young themselves), it is because she presents her story as a kind of Kafkaesque report. This report is compiled by Dr. Berners a Swiss-born plastic surgeon in search of his drop-out son, to "us," the audience outside his mental amphitheater, where he performs imaginary operations on various members of the human race. Apart from his obsessive need to "reexamine all human action as animal" for his audience. Berners is attempting to justify himself before his God and his "needle-crucified" son, Raoul, who functions as a sort of Christ figure. Raoul's disappearance has forced his father to reassess his own life in terms of his childhood religion (the Protestantism of the Berne fathers) and a strange breed of reverse-Darwinism. Perversely apprenticed to the "monkey-man," he has come to view young people as diseased mutations, prone to an universal sickness that is dragging mankind towards extinction.

Berners was educated at the school of the Berne fathers, and went to a church that seemed to him one enormous dispensary. The fathers doled out some pretty bitter medicine, which Berners had tried hard to forget. "I was brought up Fvangelist They deny we can be saved by good works and my son found it out" It takes Berners the whole book the loss of his son, and the discovery of a new world of "uncollected places" to find this out too.

IN HIS EARLIER SEARCH for salvation, Berners switched from doing cosmetic plastic surgery on the rich to performing curative surgery on the poor for what he thinks is his son's sake. But their hareditary diseases, bred of poverty and neglect, remind him of the alleged physical force contaminating the younger generation. When he then looks for spiritual salvation, however, he cannot avoid the concrete realities surrounding him in city streets and hospital corridors. Bends of bearded youths and have krishna dancers with the faces of cheerleaders allow him to toy with the idea of a Second Coming. The end won't come that easily, though, and his struggle to attain grace becomes merely a grasping at identity, an identity that wavers between Europe and America, father, murderer, surgeon and witch doctor.

Berners sees the communal effort he leads, the hunting of children by parents, the attempts at understanding, as a "process," not a "circumstance" as the others do. What Calisher does not seem to realize is that she is guilty of the same thing. She creates a nicely literary shallow set of circumstances out of what should be a fully human process. She plays word games and symbol strategies with her middle-aged prilgrims, but forgets their supposedly real children entirely; they are but mythical objects of a quest.

HER STORY almost runs as a repeat of Milos Forman's film on the same subject, "Taking Off," But Forman's film was infinitely better, because it was more believable. It is perhaps the best movie ever made about adoleacent alienation and parent-child relationships in modern day America. Those young people should be seen and heard--this is not impossible in a book, either--not abstracted into a Spenglerian Untergang des Abenlandes. Berners can never find his son, because there is nothing left to find in Calisher's descriptions. "Would it be a reversal of the roles between cadaver and child? Would it be--that our children become our cadavers, and we are forced to dance with them?" Berners muses. In Calisher's morality play the dark power of reversal does not endanger her world so much as does the skillful hand of a puppet-maker.

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