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May 22, 2013
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'Riven Rock' by T. Coraghessan Boyle
A Bizarre Tale Of Insanity, Psychiatry And Lovelessness
Sunday, January 25, 1998
By Bob Hoover, Book Editor, Post-Gazette
The life of Stanley McCormick was all very sad - so much money and all of it worthless to heal the tortured soul of this American millionaire.
McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus, the reaper king, was a prisoner of his demented mind. (``Sexual hypochondriacal neurasthenia and incipent dementia praecox'' was the diagnosis.)
He was held in near isolation for more than 40 years as a private mental patient in his huge Santa Barbara, Calif., estate, Riven Rock, while his loyal wife waited patiently for his cure.
T. Coraghessan Boyle loves these kinds of tales, the bizarre side of the American dream, like the weird John Kellogg from ``The Road to Wellville'' or the fate of the son of Admiral Richard Byrd, who froze to death in Baltimore.
Boyle, 48, has produced a mountain of lush, overripe prose since his well-received short-story collection ``If the River Were Whiskey'' appeared in 1989.
And, although Hollywood made a hash of ``Wellville,'' the '93 Boyle novel was a triumph of excess, from its garish style to its accounts of Kellogg's five-enema-a-day habit.
Boyle retreated a bit with the more reserved ``The Tortilla Curtain'' in '95, but he's back with the ``Wellville'' approach in this new, ambitious novel. That means lots of eating, drinking and intimate bodily functions recounted with gusto.
In ``Wellville,'' Boyle laughed at America's health-food fads; this time, he takes on psychiatry, as it was practiced in the early 20th century when McCormick was seized by his demons.
I'll bet, however, that it was the story of McCormick's wife, rather than the millionaire's life, that attracted Boyle to this obscure tale, which ended with McCormick's death in 1947.
Katherine Dexter, the first woman graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wealthy in her own right, watched McCormick crumble on their wedding night in 1904.
A ``modern'' woman, she called on the new science of psychiatry to cure her husband of his violent rages and catatonic collapses, sparing no expense.
McCormick's doctor would permit no women, including Katherine, near him, and she was forced to catch glimpses of her husband at a distance through binoculars. The ban lasted 20 years. McCormick was attended by male nurses only.
Over the years, Katherine threw herself into the suffragette and birth control movements until another doctor finally allowed her to visit her husband in 1927 when they were both 52. But nothing had changed; Stanley eventually attacked her and drove her away.
The prospects for exploring the denial of love, or at least, physical passion (Boyle writes that the marriage was never consummated), on both men and women seem obvious here, particularly so because Boyle can attribute the denial to psychiatry. There's no cure for Stanley, no love for Katherine.
But something goes wrong in this novel. Boyle delights in telling another story - the vigorous pursuit of women by Eddie O'Kane, one of McCormick's nurses. He also uses the opportunity to recount the history of Santa Barbara, where he lives, as California grows more populated.
The fictional O'Kane becomes more real to the reader than the sad McCormicks, particularly Katherine, who disappears for pages at a time. Stanley McCormick's bizarre disease is explained away in elemental Freudian terms, giving us little insight or sympathy for his character.
In the end, what we have is a curious American historical footnote, embellished by the over-the-top writing and love of the bizarre by Boyle.
It's a nice story, but don't look for any more than that.
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