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Faith, drink, depression, family drama, Wildean wit

The Baltimore Sun

Letter from Point Clear

By Dennis McFarland

Henry Holt and Company / 320 pages / $25

Bonnie Owen has been saved. At least, Pastor Vandorpe, her blue-eyed, charismatic, 25-year-old husband, thinks she's been saved. Teetering on the edge between belief and unbelief, 30-year-old Bonnie isn't sure. "How do you know you're not just doing whatever you damn well please and because you prayed for guidance you just imagine you're being guided?" she asks. That's the question behind Dennis McFarland's sixth novel, Letter from Point Clear.

Bonnie, the youngest in a close-knit Alabama family, married an evangelical preacher but didn't invite her older brother and sister to the wedding. Older sister Ellen believes that Bonnie, driven by her failure as an actress, her occasional use of drugs and her depression over her alcoholic father's recent death, has gone off the deep end. Older brother Morris believes that Bonnie is ashamed of him because he is homosexual and married to another man.

McFarland's latest, like his others, is a tale of damaged families, alcoholism, rich Southerners (who learn that money doesn't buy happiness), social issues and redemption. Set in the fundamentalist South, the motifs take on a new resonance as McFarland pits gay issues against fundamentalist religion.

The story begins as Ellen receives a letter announcing her little sister's marriage. She calls Morris with the news, and soon, the two 40-something Owen siblings leave their homes in Massachusetts to travel to the family's homestead in the wealthy Gulf coast town of Point Clear.

Feeling responsible for Bonnie since both parents are deceased, they plan to bail her out of another poor choice. While they're at it, they hope to save their inheritance, which includes their childhood home, where Bonnie lives with her new husband.

But why would Bonnie choose to marry an evangelical preacher? And more to the point, why would he choose Bonnie except for her money? She has already made a hefty contribution to his church's building fund.

Pastor Vandorpe is a latter-day St. Paul - whose epistles are noted on these pages - except he's married and has no sexual hangups. Although Morris doubts Pastor's religious sentiments, Pastor seems the genuine article. He's devout and believes that he has saved Bonnie from her addictions and would like to save Morris from his lifestyle.

Morris insists he has a life - not a lifestyle - and wonders about the brain power of someone who has had only one semester of college and has never been to the seminary. But Pastor is self-educated, smart and caring. He practices the Golden Rule and studies the Bible. He has also had several conversion experiences, which (whether true or not) seem to have worked.

Spent from one such conversion event, Pastor calls Morris to his bedroom to discuss the validity of the experience. Enjoying yet another opportunity to put Pastor in his place, Morris tries one-upmanship: "It's not as if you're the first person it's ever happened to. You can hardly pick up a tabloid without reading an item about somebody who's seen the face of Jesus somewhere." Morris, though, believes that Pastor has had a conversion experience and tells him so.

"But Morris, I'm already a Christian," Pastor says, missing the point.

"Are you sure?" Morris asks. "Are you really sure?" Morris' words suggest more than what they say in the story, which, if it does nothing else, poses several questions - all worthy of consideration.

The novel is told in brightly written chapters, many of which could stand alone as short stories. In fact, chapter four appeared in a slightly different form in The American Scholar (August 2006) as "The Preacher's Wife." The chapters feel like snapshots of scenes, almost as if they were acts in a play, partly because there's little action but much conversation and partly because of McFarland's talent for evoking a scene with the just-right detail. The two sisters are the least realized of the characters and serve as foils for Morris and Pastor, whose conflict is the story's centerpiece.

McFarland's gift in the novel is his ability to balance the sacred with the ironic, mainly through scintillating one-liners from Morris, an Oscar Wilde sound-alike. Here's an example: "If I had wandered into the living room at 4 a.m. and found Jesus of Nazareth standing by the old grandfather clock, I would've had a few questions for him. Unfortunately, I slept through the whole thing."

With his acerbic wit, Morris is the most engaging character here. Wealthy, urbane, sophisticated and snobbish, Morris, who teaches English in a Boston college, not because he needs the money, but because he enjoys the attention, looks down on the South. He sees it as an intellectual backwater with a tendency toward homophobia, racism, unwholesome cuisine and pandemic bad taste - all of which seem to be embodied in his new brother-in-law. As the plot develops, Morris continually tries to poke holes through Pastor's over-the-top notions of spirituality. Trouble is, he can't.

Diane Scharper teaches at English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published later this year.

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