Carnality Testing
March 5, 1995, By Ralph Lombreglia
OPEN WATER By Maria Flook. 327 pp. New York: Pantheon Books.

IN her widely praised first novel, “Family Night,” and now in her new one, “Open Water,” Maria Flook dramatizes her preoccupation with the effect of family experience on individual lives. Yet she approaches this subject not from the simplistic angle of much current popular discussion but from the perspective of an artist. Indeed, Ms. Flook’s strange and powerful fiction could dispel the mental fog that’s often associated with our use of the term “family values.”

Her work goes to extremes, but extremes can be very instructive, as Ms. Flook well knows. Her crisply paced drama and stylish prose should keep most readers with her for a wild joy ride of a story, a tale that finally hurtles through realism into allegory.

The book’s protagonist, Willis Pratt, is an “ethereal, erotic, peppery” lost soul, a man somewhere in his 20’s, recently discharged from the Navy for petty thievery. He is gripped by maniacal obsessions about filial status and duty that stem from his surreal family history.

As a boy, Willis watched his mother die in a freak choking accident precipitated by his impulsive, angry father. His father then married a woman whose first two husbands were lost at sea. Soon thereafter, Willis was the only one present when his father died of a heart attack. Thus the death of family members is a big issue for Willis, to put it mildly.

His stepmother, Rennie, is now dying of cancer. Willis returns to her Newport, R.I., house, allegedly to care for her, but it’s nearly the other way around. Willis has a fractured wrist (from punching a concrete post during his Navy discharge); Rennie shares her morphine with him. Willis does nothing by half measures and soon fractures his wrist again. By midnovel, he is a full-blown morphine addict.

Rennie’s natural son, Munro, wants to put Rennie into a hospice and sell her seaside home; Rennie wants to die there. That is all Willis has to hear. Though his chief asset is a pair of fancy boots, he decides to get the money to buy the place himself.

Like many of Ms. Flook’s characters, Willis is defined at first by his sexuality. “During his recuperation, Willis checked his potency at odd hours, several times a day. He solicited events from his carnal memory, and when that was depleted he left the house.” He soon meets Holly Temple, a recently divorced woman who has moved into a duplex next door. Holly set her former husband’s bed on fire, and is now on probation for arson. She has been having her own sexual adventures, and she thinks she can handle Willis. She can’t, but her surprising and funny loyalty to him becomes Willis’s only chance at survival.

Morphine may dampen Willis’s carnality, but it doesn’t dampen much else. With a mixture of spiritual lunacy and animal frenzy, he erupts across the novel like the “freaker” waves that drowned Rennie’s fisherman husbands. He concocts mad schemes that might actually work if Willis were only more of a detail man. As it is, the miasma of doom that gathers around him is sometimes reminiscent of the work of Robert Stone or Denis Johnson or even the Flannery O’Connor of “Wise Blood” — not for reasons of Christian theme but because Willis’s inexplicable obsessions often give him the emotional tone of O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, the preacher who pursues a life of depravity.

Ms. Flook began her career as a poet, so it’s no surprise that her pages are filled with striking images, with fresh figures of speech. Her very strengths, when overindulged, become the flaws of “Open Water.”

Ms. Flook’s characters have a tendency to banter in a witty but unlikely way. There’s more material here than a book of this length can fully develop. And when, at the conclusion of the story, its many elements swirl and coalesce like the northeaster raging outside, everything seems to be happening too fast.

But these shortcomings are mostly the forgivable kind. They arise from large ambitions and talent, and they fail to diminish the accomplishment of a novel that manages to be not only literary but suspenseful too.