Lark is 17 years old, studying secretarial skills in Winfield, West Virginia in the late 1950s. Her mother is gone, her father is a question mark, and the only home she knows is her aunt’s ramshackle house off a gravel alley in a downscale part of town. Her constant companion is her disabled younger half-brother, Termite, an orphan who can’t walk or speak.
This setup creates certain expectations on the part of the reader – expectations that Jayne Anne Phillips will do her best to undermine and subvert. A lesser author would focus on the elements of tragedy or melodrama here. If, say, Khaled Hosseini or Mitch Albom were relating the story, the good guys and bad guys would quickly emerge as stick figures and play out their predictable roles. Phillips, however, isn’t interested in identifying heroes and victims, and at almost every point in this novel where she could opt for a stereotype or clichéd plot twist or sentimental angle, she resists the temptation.
This emerges from the outset of the novel, where Phillips follows Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, during the opening days of the Korean War. Leavitt will die in combat, and our author could easily insert some moments of battlefield bravery to heighten the effect. But she doesn’t. Phillips is after something bigger here, building a web of imagery, symbol, flashback, and psychological effect that is closer to The Sound and the Fury than Saving Private Ryan.
Phillips, who like her characters Lark and Termite was raised in West Virginia, has enjoyed accolades as a writer, marked by a Guggenheim fellowship, NEA grants and a teaching stint at Harvard, but her writings focus more on the down-and-out than the up-and-coming. Her first book of stories, published when she was 26, drew inspiration from drifters, criminals and the emotionally scarred. The concepts of home and hearth, such bedrock structures in our storytelling traditions, are precarious in her fictive universe, and the quest for belonging a key part of the human condition.
These themes recur in Lark and Termite, which transpires over the course of eight days in 1950, 1951, and 1959. Yet Phillips does not take them in straight chronological order. She moves back in forth in a daring attempt to superimpose her Korean war story on top of her tale of Lark and Termite. The result is a dreamlike linkage between the two, a novelistic equivalent of Jung's “synchronicity,” in which events appear to follow some higher pattern beyond what the individual players anticipate or comprehend.
The emotional center of the book radiates outward from its quietest character, Leavitt’s son Termite, whose birth coincides with his father’s death – another synchronicity. A disabled child in a novel is usually employed when the author wants to inspire sympathy or pity from the reader, or make some ideological point. But here the youngster with special needs is entrusted with a special role, bringing out the most human qualities in the lives he touches, and creating a luminescence that prevents this story, so tragic in its details — marked by suicide, divorce, and one of the most senseless massacres of the Korean conflict — from collapsing into a litany of despair.
Phillips’ writing is powerful and poetic. She often reaches for phrases that combine the tactile, the auditory, and the visual. “Sounds deepen, layer. They are dimensional, spatial,” Leavitt muses in his final hours, and here he arrives full circle at the condition of his son, who sees with sounds and vibrations as much as with his eyes. A mystical element eventually comes to the fore in this rich story, as parent and child almost merge in some sort of collective mind — another Jungian concept there — and one of the key characters in the novel takes on a ghostlike ability to come out of nowhere and disappear into the void.
No, Jayne Anne Phillips does not play it safe anywhere in this book. She writes with a determination to make every page count, to force every character to rise above the formulaic. One sign of the best books (as opposed to the light entertainment dished out by popular culture) is that they take you to where they are, rather than serve up the familiar and expected. Lark and Termite is that kind of book. It breaks the mold in the very best way – quietly and without ostentation.