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Brain Fever.

Have you ever noticed that when Southern Christian writers like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy want to expose the folly of this world, they gravitate to madmen -- to characters who are on their way to or have just left a mental hospital? The classic set piece of this strategy, of course, is Dostoyevskys epileptic Prince Mishkin in The Idiot, although the path was pioneered, I suppose, when St. Paul turned the world upside down by claiming that "God's foolishness" mocked conventional human wisdom.

Well, Valerie Sayers' new novel, her fifth, falls squarely into this tradition. The epigraph of Brain Fever is Soren Kierkegaard's statement that "to have faith is precisely to lose one's mind so as to win God."

All of Sayers' previous four novels have been set in the marshy coastland of South Carolina, in a town called Due East that strangely resembles the Beaufort of the author's birth. In Brain Fever, however, she takes us north to New York City's SoHo., Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, places that, as a 1973 graduate of Fordham University, she knows nearly as well as her native shores. The novel's strength lies in Sayers' ability to capture her characters' distinctive voices and the energy that vibrates in individual scenes such as a bat loose on a Brooklyn-bound subway train.

The novel opens in Due East. Tim Rooney, the kindhearted, whimsical narrator, has fallen in love with still-single Mary Faith Rapple, has asked her to marry him and is preparing to adopt her 11-year-old son, Jesse, as his own. The trouble is, he is just recovering from a breakdown after having successively failed as musician, husband, academic and would-be monk.

When the atheistic Mary Faith suddenly barges in to tell him that, after all, she'll marry him in the local Catholic church as he wants, the old signs of an impending crackup resurface. "One minute I was looking at peace and perfection, a long-legged flat-bellied girl wearing white lace stockings [and nothing else]. ... The next minute her chin was going loose and her underarms were growing stubby. Her perfect nose was too long and too sharp. Mary Faith wanted to get married in the church she loathed, and I was losing it, and I was afraid." In an instant, his faith vanishes.

So he does the unforgivable. Sticking $15,000 in his sock, he bolts town and heads north, ostensibly to see his "powerwoman" ex-wife who left him after six days of marriage (and to get her permission to marry again?). But the real point is to shield those he loves from the sad spectacle of watching him lose himself as he works through the pain and guilt attached to his sister's suicide, his mother's unhappy marriage and his father's abusiveness. "Some animals go away to die. Some people go away to crack up."

Arriving in New York with a hitchhiking runaway bride-to-be (this guy loves women, all women -- "I could not bear to be so weird that no one would ever come dancing with me"), our hero -- now a "faithless ordinary man" in his own estimation -- lands in a SoHo loft apartment and begins his surrealistic descent, full of booze blackouts and bizarre encounters, into paranoia, messianic hallucination and penniless homelessness. (Yes, he's mugged and loses that 15 grand -- this is New York, isn't it?)

Simultaneously, his various friends (or is it guardian angels?), including a former student with dreadlocks, a reluctant Mary Faith and the elderly parish priest from Due East -- who don't like each other -- seek to rescue him from the wilderness of his own self-isolation. "What do you want?" his former wife asks him. "I want to be an outlaw," he answers.

If Tim Rooney can't help his madness, he can't help his goodness either. He remains the Good Thief. Returning to his senses and the lot of "the profoundly unhappy" after another blackout, he consoles himself that "I had saved Mary Faith and Jesse from myself. From what I was capable of." The least of what Tim Rooney is capable of is kinky, mildly sadistic sex. "Am I dead?" he asks his dreadlocked friend, G.B. Brights, after he hits bottom.

New York City itself -- this maelstrom of desire -- makes it hard to cut yourself off. "You are not alone in Washington Square," says the deranged Tim, "no sir, not in a city populated by the weirdos from every small town in America ... where East meets West and literary past meets pharmacological present, where the trendsetters meet the nerds, where the nerds `are' the trendsetters ... where everybody is actively seeking something, anything, you can always connect."

Even a madman, maybe especially a madman, can draw a crowd in Washington Square -- and, yes, "crawl into new life."

The death-rebirth theme here is difficult for any writer to handle deftly; it demands a subtlety worthy of an unobtrusive Holy Spirit, and is one reason I myself have never tried a novel. I found the plotting in Brain Fever a bit overwrought and overloaded with more angelology than seemed plausible, at least in the city where I live. And the names of the characters -- Angela Bliss, G.B. Brights and Mary Faith -- were distracting, as if calling attention to themselves as symbols.

Yet overall, I enjoyed myself in these pages. Brain Fever is an energetic and absorbing tale of a man whose faith in promises -- his own or another's -- has unaccountably dissolved. The cause might be genetic, bad chemistry or an unresolved oedipal complex -- it makes no difference. What seems to matter to Sayers, who runs the creative writing program at the University of Notre Dame, is something deeper in the DNA and automatic nervous system, an instinct of faithfulness that one person can offer another when, almost in spite of ourselves, we feel compelled to promise, "I won't leave you" -- in sickness or in health, in good times or bad, till death.
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Author:Toolan, David
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 24, 1996
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