Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When Mermaids Sing

When Mermaids Sing
by Mark Zvonkovic

(iUniverse / 1-440-16717-6 / 978-1-440-16717-1 / September 2009 / 248 pages / $16.95 / B&N $13.56 / hardcover $26.95 / Amazon $19.40)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Larry Brown's musings about life as he observes it are insightful, humorous and often jaded. Outwardly, the protagonist of Mark Zvonkovic's gently written novel When Mermaids Sing is a pleasant, unassuming Medford, PA, high school English teacher who tries to get along with everyone and avoid conflicts.

He often feels manipulated by the requirements of his teaching job and the endless expectations of his parents and his girlfriend Millie. Brown's parents, both college teachers, expect him to play a role in their world, while Millie, an actress who might be cheating on him, expects him to make dutiful appearances in her social and family life. At work, where he may not really be happy, he's hoping to be granted tenure, and his cousin Bradley has joined a cult and might have lost himself in the addictive peace it provides.

Brown can ponder the humor and the irony of such realities because he has a "cure”. He copes with the chaos of his job and his relationships by retreating into memories of the halcyon summer days of his youth at a Cape Cod vacation house with his siblings and cousins. Those were the best years of his life. The present cannot compete with them. He doesn't want it to. Henry David Thoreau once said of Cape Cod's Outer Beach, "A man may stand there and put all America behind him." Likewise, Brown retreats to the house of his youth to put all of life's troubling challenges behind him.

While making an obligatory appearance at his father's annual party for freshmen college students, Brown meets a personable young woman named Jenny with a strong aversion to cults. Her brother Josh has joined the charismatic Path to God, the same group to which Bradley has sworn allegiance, if not his soul. Jenny complains that Josh has repudiated their father as Satan and "become a different person”. A psychiatrist at the party remarks that the sudden personality change exhibited by cult members is due to brainwashing, not hypnosis. This, and the lack of fences and armed guards at an ashram, make it difficult for families to intervene.

Brown vacillates about the difference between the freedom to choose a path others don't agree with and losing one's freedom through brainwashing and choosing the same path. Jenny's family is no longer splitting hairs. They've engaged the services of a well-known deprogrammer to help them extract Josh from the Cape Cod ashram even though everyone involved might end up being charged with kidnapping.

When Jenny points out that Bradley and Josh are together at the same place and enlists Brown's help, he can no longer ignore the issue as a mere philosophical topic for debate. Will Brown help Jenny, Bradley and Josh? He would rather not, because if he does, he will have to admit there's more involved here than the rescue of two impressionable young people from the brainwashing of a cult. He will finally have to take a stand on something and answer a lingering question. Is escaping life by running away to a cult different than running away to the past?

The title of Zvonkovic's carefully written novel is suggested by a line from John Donne's playful “Go and Catch A Falling Star”. Catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing are, in Donne's thinking, rather unlikely events. Readers of When Mermaids Sing may wonder whether substantive change in Larry Brown is also unlikely. As literary fiction, the story relies heavily on theme, interior monologue and a strong sense of place rather than non-stop action on its introspective journey to a powerful conclusion.

See Also: The March of Books Review
The Good Reads Review

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