Written in a style resembling religious litany, this is the tale of a disastrous teen-age marriage and its criminal consequences. The setting is California. Maria is a poor Mexican-American who meets and attracts Russell, a working class Anglo. Although ambivalent, Maria sees marriage to Russell as the path to American, white respectability. Her earlier hopes of achieving this status through her own efforts have been frustrated by the reality of poor academic performance. She is eager to get away from the household of her deeply religious mother. Russell is brooding, taciturn, and carries the physical and psychic wounds of an abused childhood--his father is a partially reformed alcoholic who deliberately burned Russell's hand.

The pair are ill-equipped for marriage or parenthood and Maria soon feels trapped. Their son, John, avoids provoking them by being a "good boy," hoping to prevent their frequent arguments. Russell's deprived childhood accounts, perhaps, for his obsessively jealous fixation on Maria. He is jealous even of the attention she gives their son.

The catastrophe that seems always close at hand finally occurs: Russell sets fire to his own child. The second part of the novel is told primarily from John's perspective as he undergoes a prolonged, painful rehabilitation and tries to find meaning in these events. It is also the story of the plastic surgeon who attempts to restore John's horribly scarred body and who has come to doubt the purpose of his profession (there is nothing he can do about destructive family relationships and psychic scars). Russell, who has been brutalized in jail, is released, seeking redemption. Fire, significant throughout the story, plays a final shocking (redemptive?) role.


This well-written, disturbing novel resembles a Greek tragedy. The fateful pattern of abusive family relationships presages the catastrophic outcome. Fate, religious faith (and lack of faith), and the healer's self-doubts are prevalent and interwoven themes. The author is an ordained Roman Catholic priest who left the priesthood. Dr. Clark, a highly sympathetic character, horrified by man's inhumanity to man, is like the priest who has lost his faith. His torment could form the basis for a discussion of professional distance/involvement and physician "burn-out."

The burn victim's perceptions and surgical restoration are vividly and accurately detailed; the mother's inability to cope with his disfigurement is also striking. Many other important issues are depicted as well: the yearning for cultural acceptance; the adolescent's ambivalent struggle for independence; the woman's need for a life of her own outside of motherhood; the nurturing (sometimes tyrannical) role of the grandmother in a disrupted family; and the child's need for love, even from a murderous parent.


Penguin: Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York



Page Count