"Wild Decembers," by Edna O'Brien. Houghton Mifflin. 259 pages. $24.
Literature ought to offer surprises, and Edna O'Brien's third book in a trilogy, "Wild Decembers," does that with both hands.
"Wild Decembers" is a battle for ownership -- of land, of birthrights, of a man's or woman's heart -- and will appeal to those who like their human stories with a deep-bellied pipe organ groaning the rafters. This novel doesn't take half-steps -- characters who are stubborn are magnificently, idiotically stubborn; characters who are killers will kill anything; characters who are shy are shy like lemurs. But it is, partly, a dark novel in the Gothic tradition, and partly one of symbolic action, whose characters are driven by their passions -- where, in fact, they serve as vehicles for those passions -- and within those genres it doesn't disappoint.
Delightfully, Emily Bronte is waving her handkerchief at us shyly from the wings. "Wuthering Heights" and its wonderful baggage of the Gothic Romance is here in shapes somewhat more substantial than a mere literary ghost. In a graveyard love scene we discover that our characters "would stand a little longer in that sphere of moonlight, among the stone likenesses of saints and martyrs, not doubting, not hesitating, looking into one another's carved face as if for the first time and for all time, saying nothing at all, full of happiness and dread, as though love and fatality were one and the same."
And we see the sunlight wink from one pane in James Joyce's eyeglasses. The debt this book owes him is in its language -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes only straining to reach that mark, sometimes in a direct and pleasurable literary theft, and sometimes all three at once. One early chapter begins: "Evening in the town. Strains of music pulsing out. Husky notes. Pounding notes. Thu-thump. Thu-thump. Thu-thump. Near. Far. The dinner dance. Love on the cusp. The sweets of sin. Hotel doors wide open for casks of porter to be wheeled in."
But the lust in "Wild Decembers" is less real than Joyce's, and the Church (which makes lust such a powerful force in Joyce) is missing entirely. Some of the other less-than-delightful surprises are technical. The point of view changes every chapter, from full omniscience, to omniscience limited to characters serially, to first- person, to chapters that are epistolary, and could be more carefully controlled.
In fact, a larger, more substantial thematic structure is needed in the novel to validate it. (Madness is a real outcome in "Wild Decembers," and perhaps that's the reason for this narrative choice, but it's unconvincing.) The tenses shift unnecessarily from present to past and jar the careful reader from the text instead of illuminating it. O'Brien is not afraid of symbolism either, but Pink -- the color -- has the weight of a 10-pound sledge by the time the characters have finally tumbled to the bottom.
Their outcome, promised early, is inevitable. Any hope that O'Brien's wintery view of humanity might eventually thaw is dismissed when a robin flies into the house and the frightened bird has its neck summarily broken. The reason -- other than a couple of easy symbolic ones -- is hard to come by.
G.W. Hawkes is the author of two collections of short stories and two novels, the most recent of which is "Gambler's Rose" (MacMurray & Beck, 2000). He is an associate professor of English at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.