cover image Live Free or Dse

Live Free or Dse

Ernest Hebert. Viking Books, $19.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-670-83133-3

The fifth and last of Hebert's Darby novels (after The Passion of Estelle Jordan ) continues his birdseye view of the small New Hampshire community whose inhabitants are engaging illustrations of a deeply ingrained class system as American as the state motto that provides the book's title. Live Free or Die is also the name of drifter Frederick Elman's camper/pickup truck, in which he reluctantly returns to Darby to take over his father's trash-collection business while the older man is recovering from a fall incurred while poaching on private land owned by the Salmon family. ``Squire'' Reggie Salmon, now dead, poured his fortune into this property, the Trust, leaving his widow and daughter, Lilith, virtually nothing more than the imposing family manse. When the trash man's son takes up with the Squire's daughter (though the only thing they have in common is their ``shared despair''), the rigid social hierarchy is disrupted. Meanwhile, the town is embroiled in a class-driven controversy over maintaining the Trust lands as a private preserve or developing them with condominiums. Among Hebert's themes here are the alienation of parents and children, of natives and newcomers, and of rich and poor. His eye for social nuances is acute, and he illuminates issues of class and culture with wry humor and compassion. Subtlety is not his strong suit, however; often he slows the narrative by over-explaining his characters' inchoate thoughts and emotions. Still, much of this novel is perceptive and provocative. (Nov.)