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In our age, television and its preachers have replaced religiosity, and the search for simple human goodness has become increasingly complex. In his comic new novel The Book of Marvels, Christopher T. Leland succeeds in finding that place in the modern world where goodness knows no religion.
The Book of Marvels
By Christopher T. Leland
Charles Scribner's Sons
$17.95; 182 pages
Set in the small southern town of Rhymers Creek, the book has as its protagonist Lila Mae Bower Pietrowsky. Lila Mae is well-intentioned, a good Christian woman who believes she is leading her disordered life as best she can. Her husband has left her. Her mother is a meddling hypochondriac. Wellsley Coe, whom Lila Mae has admired since high school, has insulted her virtue by asking her to have sex with him. And she is shocked and disappointed to discover that half the staff in the convalescent home where she works is homosexual.
The small comfort she does find in life comes from Ted and Becky Standish, hosts of the Christian network's "World of Love." The show is the satiric crux of the book, but most of the televangelism satire falls flat, and besides, it has been done before (and better) in other media.
But The Book of Marvels soundly succeeds when it explores the impact the show has on Lila Mae, and on her relationship with others--especially her godless co-workers. The funniest moments occur in the convalescent home. In perhaps the most outrageous scene of the book, Lila Mae's co-worker Norma "decides," after some sexual difficulties and a break-up with her boyfriend, that she is a lesbian. She cuts her hair, drops her voice a couple of octaves, and conspicuously marches about the home. Another co-worker explains to the naive Lila Mae that Norma has "gone over to the other side":
Lila Mae shuddered anew. It was true. Norma had fallen into the occult. It was just like Ted was always warning on "World of Love"; even worse, because with those atheist affirmative-action laws, Quiet Meadows would be required to keep a Devil-worshipper on the staff or they'd be sued.
"Oh, Lord," she whispered.
Surprisingly, the comedy in this book is never cruel. The humor, like the characterization, is gently handled. Leland obviously likes his characters, and that affection saves them from becoming the stereotypes they so easily could have been.
He establishes a nice, insular world for them to live in. His characters, for all their quirks and failings, want to do good. They sometimes are too good to each other to be believable, especially in the closing and epilogue. But Leland takes such care in creating this world, carefully sprinkling it with picayune details, that we do not, and indeed should not, mind.
Leland writes well. His prose, if occasionally too explicit, flows easily. We never find ourselves trudging through sentences or checking for antecedents, and we are even blessed by a few poetic passages. His desciption of an elderly patient's doctor is especially lyrical: "...he was just as she imagined Mrs. Voxburg's doctor would be, as blasted of history as Mrs. Voxburg herself, readable only in the broadest terms."
The Book of Marvels is admittedly not a mind-cracking book. It tells a warm story about good people quietly, completely and simply. It takes us into a full world where things, after all, do not turn out that badly. Which would suggest that beyond power and genius there is human decency and simple caring, and that is not such a bad thing to think upon closing a book.
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