Carter Clay

Elizabeth Evans, Author
Elizabeth Evans, Author HarperCollins Publishers $24 (404p) ISBN 978-0-06-019265-5
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
Paperback - 416 pages - 978-0-06-092982-4
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From the wreckage of a senseless hit-and-run collision, Evans (The Blue Hour) salvages a brave yet delicate novel that succeeds beautifully despite the unlikeliness of its plot. On their way to Florida from Arizona, paleontologists Joe and Katherine Alitz and their precocious adolescentdaughter, Jersey, meet with tragedy in the form of a drunken Vietnam vet (the eponymous Carter Clay) careening down the highway. The accident leaves Joe dead, Katherine permanently brain-damaged, and Jersey a paraplegic. Determined to assuage his guilt, yet terrified of being found out for his crime, Clay insinuates himself into the survivors' broken lives. His desire to do good impels him to marry the catatonic Katherine and relieve Katherine's alcoholic mother of her unwelcome role as nurse. But a long-standing grudge borne against Clay by his former drinking buddy Finis Pruitt (also a victim of the accident) threatens Clay's precarious new ""family."" The novel often floats solely on the contrasts among its three central characters: Katherine, a former distinguished scholar who now can scarcely feed herself; Jersey, an insightful child embittered by her fate; and Carter, a desperate loner who uses religion and 12-step programs to glue together a life fragmented by experiences in Vietnam. As Carter nears his redemption, Finis looms nearby, itching for battle. The novel critiques American suburbia even as it swims in it; the characters speak a language of consumer cliches as if the wine they drink and the songs they sing formed an ever-appreciating commodity. Evans's provocative, exclamatory prose sallies forth with rhetorical devices--puns, arch questions, italic emphasis--that bring her contemporary Lorrie Moore to mind. Armed with these tools, as well as with a deeply empathetic sense of humor, Evans transforms a potential melodrama into a sometimes raunchy, but unwincing and bittersweet, tragicomedy. (Mar.)
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