Picks and Pans Review: Martha Calhoun

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Richard Babcock

Set in Katydid, III., a paradigm of small-town Babbitry in 1956, this first novel is about a lonely 16-year-old girl full of expectations. Martha Calhoun claims that her best friend is Mary Sue Zimmerman; in fact Martha's best friend is her mother, Bunny, a waitress at the local country club. She's "the most beautiful woman in Katydid, Ill.," Martha tells the reader. "One thing about Bunny, she's got beautiful blond hair. It's the first thing about her you'd notice." Martha herself has an angular face, a towering body and plain brown hair, locks of which Bunny clips off at intervals and slips into envelopes: "That way, she'd said, I'd have something to save and show my own daughters." The fatherless family lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Bunny is the good time had by all; Martha's brother, Tom, a bad boy par excellence, is in reform school, and Martha becomes a Katydid cynosure when she lets a 9-year-old boy she's baby-sitting undo her blouse. "He stepped back to examine what he'd done," she recalls. "He was absolutely motionless. For a few seconds, I was actually enjoying it—feeling the way a snake charmer feels." Observed by the boy's horrified mother, the episode sends Martha into juvenile court and to the foster home of a religious fanatic, whose daughter, Sissy, was recently drowned. Martha runs away from Katydid with the perennially pink-faced Elro Judy, Sissy's former boyfriend (and perhaps her murderer). The book ends with Martha caught and sent to the children's home, while Bunny, done in and drying out, lies in a local hospital. Babcock ably evokes a sense of time and place. This is a town where the country-club golf course has only 12 holes. The newspaper regularly runs anonymous, innuendo-filled letters about, for example, the unfitness of certain women (read, Bunny Calhoun) to be mothers. Babcock is much less successful with his characters, notably Martha and Bunny. Babcock writes constantly about the strong bond between the two but provides little evidence of the connection. A far more serious problem with the novel is that the author, an editor at New York magazine, would have us believe Martha and the irritatingly irresponsible Bunny are undone not by their own infelicitous choices but by a tidal wave of circumstances. It's hard to accept the argument that the Calhouns are victims and harder still to care about them one way or the other. That gap leaves a reader ultimately unfulfilled, compromising an enterprising first novel. (Random House, $15.95)

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