rev. of Wavemaker II by Mary-Beth Hughes

Issue #87
Spring 2002

Wavemaker II
A novel by Mary-Beth Hughes. Grove/Atlantic Monthly, $24.00 cloth. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

In her admirable debut novel,
Wavemaker II, Mary-Beth Hughes stitches together a complex story of an unraveling family against the backdrop of the early 1960’s misdoings of Roy Cohn, the controversial McCarthy-era lawyer. While the storyline is full of daring shifts in point of view and authentic historical details, what holds the work together is the essential authority and music of the narrative voice.

Hughes successfully evokes the nearly catastrophic summer of 1964, when Will Clemens, who has loyally taken the fall for Roy Cohn in a sketchy situation, endures his prison term while his young family fractures. Kay, his wife, finds herself susceptible to virtually every seduction, as she faces her young son’s battle with terminal cancer and her mildly obese daughter’s maddeningly inappropriate forays into the sex-charged world of adolescence. As Will suffers through a variety of humiliations and finds himself growing more and more immoral, Kay accepts into her bed men whom she would never have once considered, and her boy, Bo, slips further and further into the oblivion of his illness.

It’s a grim and yet lyrically vivid period in this young family’s life, when nothing is going right, when the world is in league against them, and Hughes captures this with a wondrous array of sensual detail and a keen eye for the telling gesture and the crystallized perception. Will’s soap, to Kay’s senses, has “a kind of scent like shoe polish in a tin.” The prison block where Will is kept is “often radiant with filtered sun and stippled blue skies. The dirt functioned like a scrim and subtly patterned the light that came through.” While Will’s conduct in prison is hardly model (he is both brutally manipulative and seductive), the depth of his empathy for his son is stunningly real: “A word about Bo and he felt a kind of bizarre misery. It started in his groin, then radiated down toward the space behind each kneecap with a slow red insistence. It stopped there, rested in an oscillating on-off pattern, then traveled upward again, reaming his hip joints, landing in the center of his sternum. His throat
would swell, then his head would finally dry out like a gourd and swing with pain. This choreography was completely reliable.”

While there is much else going on in the plot of
Wavemaker II particularly the careful evocation of how Roy Cohn became so nefarious, replete with compelling portraits of his mother, his girlfriend, and his own lawyer the moral force of the novel and its emotional strength evolve from Hughes’s treatment of the child’s illness and how the world that surrounds him can offer at best only a failing embrace. If the novel is occasionally mechanical and sometimes bloodless, it is also honest. As Will’s moral descent deepens, he sees quite clearly and “not for the first time, that the people who waited for him would be better off if he never came home.”

Fred Leebron is author of the novels Out West, Six Figures,
and the forthcoming In the Middle of All This.
He teaches at Gettysburg College and directs the low-residency M.F.A. program at Queens College in Charlotte.