No sign of deliverance in Egypt, Maine

The Beans of Egypt, Maine, by Carolyn Chute. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 215 pp. $7.95. Grief rides through the pages of this short and pungent first novel: grief astride a deft, coarse, rural-picturesque kind of comedy.

Whether it's the author's own grief, at having lived through the indignities of small-town poverty herself -- or the reader's, at seeing even the best of her fictional captives fail to get free -- it leaves a troubling question. With Yahoos everywhere (not a sign of a Houyhnhnm) -- what will ever break the cycle?

An artfully designed cover hints the mood: It's a painting -- a gentle-looking, subtly toned American primitive, with woman, baby, hen, and rabbit against a background of trees and low blooms. But woman and baby are flushed with rage, and the flower and branch in the woman's two hands point straight into the earth.

By its exuberance, and a merciful restraint when one least expects it, Carolyn Chute's writing makes her terrible story endurable -- and makes it art. Her vivid language, fresh imagery, shrewd character development, plotting (episodic but brisk), and affectionate comic sense combine with the scene to create a touching grotesquerie.

Lumbering, sneaking, snouted, the proliferating Beans make the word ``dregs'' seem a compliment. Just across the right of way, the Pomerleaus (who are also dirt-poor, but fastidious enough to be disgusted) are their audience and eventual fodder.

Daddy Pomerleau works endlessly in wood. His mother, born-again and musical, duly shudders at finding him bunked with daughter Earlene. His father actually has a Sunday shirt; and Uncle Loren long ago chose ``clean pigs'' over dirty people. The family offers an edge of hope that not everyone in Egypt, Maine, will slide into the pit of bestiality where the Beans thrash so comfortably.

Hope focuses at first on Earlene, Daddy's matter-of-fact but observant towhead of about 12. Then, in a strange way, it rests on bony Aunt Roberta Bean, all hung about with babies but smoldering with energy. Later, there is gentle Beal Bean, so like (yet unlike) his violent uncle Rubie . . . and finally, after Earlene gives way, there are her two -- yes, Bean -- children: Bonny Loo, who has a penchant for natural science, and little Dale, who shows minuscule signs of having less grossness than his forebears.

But the hope is fragile. There is poverty to lock them all in. There are cruelties not recognized (like ignorance, lust, deadened moral sense) infusing their lives and thoroughly received as normal.

No book, no idea, no teacher . . . no school, skill, or aspiration, comes close to any of them. Their homes are dark and filthy. They wear dirty boots to bed. Pushing their way through old cars and trucks, broken plastic toys, smelly animals, neurotic chickens, bouncing snuffling clones of children, mindless secret couplings, mindless almost everything . . . they crawl from day to day. One yearns for relief: for them, and for oneself.

For despite writerly brilliance, and some kindness among the characters, it's a book of deliberately appalling images, not easy to get through. The more so because it's not really fiction. The women endure and finagle. The men careen and grab. The children watch . . . and follow.

Author Chute has shown pluck to paint a canvas so relentless, and integrity not to make it a social plea. You're allowed to feel your own heartbreak, and make of it what you will.

While there is some inconsistency of voice as she moves from crude-and-colloquial to lyrical-and-literate within the same character, and despite a little overlapping, suggesting chapters published separately, there is unmistakable power.

And a kind of urgency, too. What's at stake is the very dignity of man. Civilization isn't so sacrosanct that it's safe from its own undoing; we all skirmish with the Beanlike.

In the history of the Hebrews, ``Egypt'' often stood for oppression or bondage. There's a message in seeing Carolyn Chute come through, and with humor and talent intact.

Dayis Muth is a free-lance reviewer living in Boston.

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