Richard Lees, Parachute (Bantam, 1988)
[originally posted 16May2000]
Man, this could have been a seriously important book. It hit at just the right time, in the right form (it’s an epistolary novel, a form as old as the novel itself but one that was considered “avant-garde” during the eighties anyway), with the right people espousing the right cultural homily, and above all it’s miles better-written than the McInerneys and the Ellises could have ever managed. Its morals, for 1988, were WAY out on a limb, presaging the conservative backlash a few years later—a married couple separates, has affairs, figures out that life with affairs is a hard business, etc. All quite staunchly and rationally conservative. So given all that, why wasn’t this thing a monster hit, and why didn’t the promised “soon to be a major motion picture from MGM” appear?
On one hand, the easy answer is to say “great question. Why isn’t Guy Vanderhaeghe recognized as the single greatest writer the eighties produced, either?” and leave it at that. But there’s more to it. While the characters involved are sympathetic and we enjoy reading about them, there’s still something missing. Every once in a while a character will do something just slightly off, something that should have been expected but isn’t; things are said that don’t make sense in the context. Minor characters aren’t fleshed out, and should be. Little things. Details. And it’s those details that separate the Leeses and the Janowitzes and the rest of the a-cut-slightly-above-the-rest-of-the-eighties-writers from the truly brilliant ones, Vanderhaeghe and Michael Cunningham and perhaps Michael Chabon. Details.
Still, if you happen across a copy of this one in a used bookstore for seventy-five cents, it’s worth reading. It goes by quickly, and there are glimmers of the book this could have been often enough to make it worth the time it’ll take. ** ½