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when he catches the boy trying to jimmy a pom vault, "When you're out hunting secrets, Tom, make sure you're after d\e right one." Superficially, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is pretty standard fare—sensitive boy with indifferent parents and excessive libido comes of age. But Bruce Robinson's prose crackles with filthy energy, and we recognize ourselves in the hopelessly muddled Thomas and our families in Robinson's deft descriptions of dysfunction like this one of Thomas' house at Christmas: "full of relatives and poison, undercurrents camouflaged with cosmetic mirth." The picture is rarely pretty, but it is often tragically funny; you find yourself trying not to laugh, but then you do. In the end, young Penman shows us something of the resilience of the human spirit. If a boy as depraved and abused as Thomas turns out okay, maybe there's hope for the rest of us. (WJ) Blindness by Jose Saramago translated by Giovanni Ponteiro Harcourt Brace, 1997, 304 pp., $22 In the world created by Jose Saramago in Blindness, the ultimate horror is to be plunged not into a world of never-ending darkness but rather into a world of never-ending light. In an unnamed city, a man suddenly finds himself blind while sitting at a traffic light, waiting for it to turn green. Instead ofblackness, he sees only white, as if he were "caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea." A good Samaritan drives the blind man home, only to succumb to the temptation to steal his car. The blind man goes to an ophthalmologist, who apparently catches his blindness , as do all the other patients in his office: a prostitute, an old man with a black eyepatch, and a boy with a squint. Soon everyone in the city is blind, except for the ophthalmologist 's wife. The cause for the "white sickness" is never established, but it becomes clear that the blindness is somehow an outward manifestation of the inner spiritual malaise of our times. Saramago's language invites the traditional associations between light and divinity (for example: "... these blind people were forever surrounded by a resplendent whiteness, like the sun shining through mist"), but the world he creates is more reminiscent of Dante's Inferno. Names become meaningless. The government , banks and military collapse. Water and electricity cannot be delivered by the blind to a city ofthe blind. Food becomes scarce. Saramago is no cynic, however, and even though he acknowledges that there are no limits to human degradation, his blind civilization doesn't disintegrate into an everyone -for-themselves fight for survival. The keys to staying alive in this world are human relationships and one basic maxim, delivered by the doctor's wife: "If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals." Inside an asylum where the blind people are at first quarantined, the original blind man and his wife, the doctor and his wife, the prostitute (soon to be called simply "the girl with dark glasses"), the old man with a black 196 · The Missouri Review patch and the boy with a squint form a group that survives this holocaustic experience. Saramago's message is nothing so simple as "love will conquer all," but love, acts of selflessness and courage do go a long way toward combating the plague. ' Saramago sustains the blindness metaphor so well that the reader often begins to feel blind. Colors are rarely mentioned; facial and body features remain vague; visual details are limited to shapes, barriers, light or dark. Saramago's fine balance between believable narration and philosophical meditation will pull in the intelligent reader and keep her there. Occasionally, the narrative voice can seem intrusive and rather ponderous in its pronouncements. Stylistically, Saramago lacks the grace and lightness of Milan Kundera, with whom he invites a comparison. Unlike Kundera, whose aesthetic delights often force the narrative to take a backseat, however, Saramago has created a story and characters that will remain with the reader a very long time. (NS) Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout Random House, 1998, 304 pp., $22.95...


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pp. 196-197
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