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Hill Country Family Affairs BY LOUIS DUBOSE BREAKING GENTLE By Beverly Lowry New York: Viking Penguin, 1988 326 pages, $17.95 THERE IS A STORY told in Mexico that goes something like this: At the time of the Creation, St. Peter is awestricken when he first sees the Guatemalan Highlands. It is all so beautiful. The mountains, the volcanic lakes, the lush tropical vegetation, the resplendent quetzal. So, of the Creator, he asks, “How can it be that one place is so exquisite? Here, it seems, is too much natural beauty. Does it not seem unfair that Mexico, so near this place, has so much less?” “I will make it fair,” St. Peter is told. “Just wait until you see the people I intend to put here.” A variation on this-story is told in most Central and South American countries. And a variation might be applied to Beverly Lowry’s novel, Breaking Gentle. That this author has mastered traditional linear novel is established here, again. Breaking Gentle is almost technically flawless. Lowry executes a novel, managing what appear to be effortless shifts in time and place by techniques so deceptively simple as ending one paragraph and beginning another. Shifts in dramatic perspective seem equally effortless though at times the reader will wish for more authorial control of the third person narrative, so as not to know these particular characters so intimately. And that is precisely where the aforementioned parable applies. The novel is a technical success, a thing of beauty. But wait until you see the people she put there. Breaking Gentle is the new journalism of the American dysfunctional family that is, it does for the dysfunctional family what The Bonfire of the Vanities did for the corporate swine of Manhattan. It documents, with exacting detail, most of the minutiae of their lives. \(There are at least two complete recipes that wend through several passages in the book and, after four of five chapters the reader has a pretty good fix on the protagonists’ domestic compost Breaking Gentle will also confirm all of your suspicions about those Southwest Conference success stories who have abandoned promising urban careers to move to the Hill Country and raise horses or truffles or peaches or elephant garlic. They are not happy people. Consider Lowry’s characters: There is a literate protagonist, an a.b.d. University of Houston, who is more or less faithful to her anal retentive and mildly alcoholic engineer husband. A bisexual son, Roger, who will never complete the final ten hours on his undergraduate degree and will probably spend all of his life grappling with his ambiguous sexual preference while cooking in a trendy California restaurant. And an adolescent daughter, Bethany, whose eating disorder and other neuroses finally lead her to one of those caring therapeutic communities that are usually advertised just before the local news comes on at ten. If these people lived down the street from you and severl like them probably do it is unlikely that you would want to know a great deal about their lives. Yet Lowry engages and holds the reader through pages and pages of Hill Country domestic tedium. \(Actually, they live between Kyle and Driftwood, where the rolling hills of West Austin begin to give way to the Hill Country. The story is so firmly and journalisticaly fixed between the protagonists’ ranch and South Austin that Sematechers and other newcomers to the area might use it as a guidebook: where to swim, where to buy veal, gourmet coffee, THE QUIET DOMESTIC tragedy of Breaking Gentle is perhaps best considered in Aristotelian terms. Diana Caldwell, who realizes that she married badly or at least wrong takes several lovers over the course of 26 years of marriage. One, Jesse James, a perennial graduate student type so common to Austin, becomes a permanent fixture in her life. She can’t seem to bring herself to forget his garage apartment \(also familiar to anyone music collection, and long afternoons spent making love and smoking dope. This particular flaw in the protagonist’s character befouls her relationship with her husband, Hale, and finally results in a certain corruption of blood as things go badly for the couple’s children, too. And it is not that promiscuity itself is a vice. But rather, having made a commitment to a traditional marriage with its concomitant restraints, the protagonist does not live within those restraints. Nor does her husband deserve anything less than to be a cuckold. For what he does to language, he deserves both the unfaithful spouse and the dermatitis he suffers throughout the novel. “Want a Mary \(a . a a few “serranos” or a potato that to him “looked long in the tooth but the eyes hadn’t sprouted.” It’s not only the fellow’s domestic shorthand that gets under the reader’s skin. It’s his fastidious washing of his foreskin, his compulsion to organize, his neat dicing of vegetables, and his inability to love his children. If it is for sexual hubris that Diana Hale is being punished, then I would offer that her debt is settled somewhere around page 60. This is also a novel that might be understood in Freudian terms. It was, after all, Hale’s mother who taught him to wash that foreskin and made of him the obsessive and anally retentive fellow that he is. And it is an obsession at the other end of the tract by which Bethany lands in Cedar Hills, where she spends most of her time trading favors for chocolate. Then there is that combination of an emotionally withdrawing father and a strong and intelligent mother that sends sexually bewildered Roger west on I-10 and back to Benicia, in northern California. And through all of this runs a carefully charted river of oral gratification. This is Texas as Woody Allen might have interpreted it had he been reared in the Hill Country. There is the muddled application of the principles a protagonist gleans through reading and counseling in Manhattan it would be analysis. There is good food and wine. There is dialogue in which subtext is often as important as what is actually said, the most urbane sort of psychological anguish, and even the occasional phrase that might have been lifted from a Woody Allen script: “Think of your life as a refrigerator,” the Caldwells are told in a family therapy session. “There are no mystical problems. Only practical ones. Your goal should be to fix the refrigerator, not so it’s new again. Just so it works.” 18 JANUARY 6, 1989