Picks and Pans Review: Lives of the Saints

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by David R. Slavitt

The nameless narrator of Slavitt's profoundly melancholy novel cowers behind a shield of irony. A Jew, he has become obsessed with the fatalistic writings of the 17th-century philosopher-priest Nicolas Malebranch—and with the bizarre lives and gruesome deaths of the Catholic saints. Intelligent, educated, he spends his days cranking out stories for a supermarket tabloid, chronicling such eye-catching events as BOY, 11, MAKES FIVE BABYSITTERS PREGNANT.

His current, perverse assignment is to examine the victims of a mass murderer through the possessions, the "relics," they have left behind. It is, he reflects, "a new kind of sob story, but also a huge intellectual joke." Especially to the writer, who has his own relics at home—the unfinished projects and sad, pretty dresses of his wife and daughter, killed a few weeks before by a drunken driver. ("Their lives were just erased, as if they had been pictures on a Magic Slate. And mine was transformed. Deformed.")

The results of his reporting are not predictable—or maybe they are. Victim Laura Bowers, for example, is eulogized by her sister this way: "She was a thief and a bitch and I'm glad she's dead." Victim Eddie Springer, age 3, has left no effects: His mother has stripped his room. Victim Roger Stratton, a "vague academic puffbali," has a widow who just might save the narrator's soul. Meanwhile, the murderer, John Babcock, proves nothing more than cranky when confronted by his crime. "What do you want me to say?" Babcock balks, when prodded. "That it wasn't such a good idea? I'll go along with that."

The politics of the newspaper bog down the narrator's story, shape it, eventually kill it. But as he sifts through the lives of the saints and sorts through the possessions of the victims, he comes slowly to terms with his own painful loss. Deeply moving and, at times, wickedly funny, this original work is a Miss Lonelyhearts for our confused and violent times. (Atheneum, $19.95)

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