Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Lark is seventeen 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,
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

Phillips, who like her characters Lark and Termit
e 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 what Jung called
“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
Lark and Termite

by Jayne Anne Phillips
Great Books Guide
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