Picks and Pans Review: Shadow Play

UPDATED 02/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST

by Charles Baxter

A father's untimely death and a mother's subsequent retreat into what appears to be madness are psychic wounds that drive Wyatt Palmer, the protagonist of Baxter's profound, poetic second novel, to seek healing in a conventional life.

Wyatt forms a family and indentures himself to civil service in an economically depressed Michigan town; he even cuts through red tape to help a former high-school classmate, now an entrepreneur, build a local chemical plant. But these are only temporary poultices. Wyatt's wound is torn open again when his cousin Cyril, for whom he gets a job at the new plant, is poisoned by toxic substances on the job. In trying to secure his own life as well as that of his cousin, Wyatt feels he's undone both Cyril and himself.

It is in the careful charting of Wyatt's moral struggle that Baxter's beautifully written novel reaches a level of mastery. The unpredictable solution to Wyatt's spiritual pain comes as renegade wisdom embodied in the characters of his Aunt Ellen, a wise, self-reliant woman, and his mother, Jeanne, whose elegiac ravings suddenly begin to make sense. These multidimensional characters are the novel's true visionaries. They bring Wyatt a deeper understanding of the human condition; they offer the possibility of redemption by revealing to him his deeper self, his own shadow play. (Norton, $21.95)

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