The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Endless Love by Scott Spencer. Avon, 390 pp. $2.75.
Endless Love is a novel that seems to leave unsaid as much as it says; one has the feeling that its narrator, David Axelrod, could have told a story twice as long, or could write another novel made up just of the events he has left out. What seems to me most brilliant about this novel that is brilliant on every page is the place where it chooses to begin, on the warm summer Chicago night when David sets fire to the house of the girl, and the family, that he loves. He had been banned from the house for thirty days, apparently because his relationship with Jade Butterfield had grown so intense as to be almost dangerous, and he had hoped just to set a small fire, on the porch, so that the Butterfields would have to come out and he could see them (or was that all he intended? We soon realize in this novel that we are in the hands of a first person narrator, and have only his word concerning his motivations; others see things differently). The fire, however, has consequences he had never imagined. Scott Spencer seems to be taking up his narrative at the end, the end of a fabulous love story in which a boy falls hopelessly in love with a girl and, by extension, with her family, but really his story is not of that adolescent love, but of its consequences. The consequences are endless.
David is the only child of a Chicago lawyer, a man whose compassion for the oppressed and for lost causes has never allowed him to make much money. Arthur Axelrod and his wife Rose, in fact, had been members of the Communist Party; they continued consistently to support leftist causes, and David has grown up in a shabby city apartment and surrounded by the lunatic fringe that supports extremist causes. It seems no wonder, on the surface of it, that he would fall in love with the Butterfields, a family with three children inhabiting a large rambling house in a residential neighborhood. The Butterfields seem a warm family, remarkably open-minded, but very close-knit; it is not surprising that David would be drawn to their domesticity, though really, of course, he is attracted to Jade, the willowy, intense daughter of the family. But the novel does not try to describe the awakening of these passions in detail. We see their awakenings in glimpses of the past, sidelong glances; the novel focuses on what comes later.
The consequences begin in David’s culpability for the fire, which he immediately confesses, thus leading to criminal prosecution, a stay in a psychiatric hospital, and a long parole during which he is forbidden to communicate with any member of the Butterfield family. Because to some extent the house was the Butterfield family, the fire also contributes to their being split up and scattered around the country. Somehow the example of David and Jade’s love — an all-consuming passion so intense that it drove a wedge into the family, aroused jealousy, anger, and plain envy — allowed others to abandon their family roles and discover their true selves. Hugh, the father, began a series of affairs with young women, as if confessing an incestuous passion for his daughter. Ann, the mother, also found her sexuality rekindled, and took up again her vocation as a writer, abandoned years before. Even Arthur and Rose Axelrod began to re-discover passions from their youth, as if the example of two adolescents totally committed to one another was enough to shame others into abandoning their lives of convention.
For among the many things that this novel has to say about love, the one thing it says most clearly — by the events it describes — is that love is outside the bounds of society, convention, decorum, and even sanity: almost by definition, because it separates lovers from the mainstream of life, love is a madness. Though we are satisfied throughout that David Axelrod is a lucid narrator with a crystal clear vision, it is no accident that the people around him don’t understand him, and that in the psychiatric hospitals the doctors see no signs of a cure. He has made the decision to devote his life to love, and somewhere along the line discovers there is no turning back.
I purposely relate almost none of the events of Endless Love, because it is a novel which partly achieves its effects by the stunning nature of its surprises. It is remarkable, looking back, that there are as few events described as there are; Endless Love is one of those books which, strung out over the space of more than ten years, tells its whole story by telling very little in enormous detail. The effortless narrative technique is masterful, and the prose itself has a sharpness and richness that seem capable of describing almost anything. The scenes of sex, for instance, the immense epic scenes of sex, are absolutely breathtaking, but never gratuitous; they are central to the story Spencer is telling, perhaps the most central thing.
Endless Love was actually published in hardback over a year ago, but has now come out in a highly publicized paperback edition (for once all the hype is worth it) that is marred only by a surprising number of typographical errors. It is hard to understand why Avon did not take a little more care with its product. At a time, however, when publishing is supposedly being taken over by commercial interests, it is comforting to know that so excellent a literary commodity can receive so much attention.
What I finally most admire about this novel is the way that its characters live for me, the way Ann Butterfield, for instance, becomes a person whose vulnerable self-assurance has touched me, and changed the way I think about myself. There is an immense sadness to this book, especially at the end, but it is a sadness that is squarely faced and thus in a sense overcome. It is the sadness that the past inevitably has, that these things happened and those did not, a life was given to this and not to that, a happiness that seemed available was not achieved. It is a sadness that the reality of our lives always has, but to find it expressed with such clarity and poignance in a work of art is rare.