Death Becomes Her

Based on the most reductive description—dead mother revisits her living children and can't help but attempt to reshape their destiny—Abby Frucht's latest novel calls to mind purely Hollywood moments of incandescent resurrection. Consider pixieish Demi Moore at that pottery wheel in Ghost, with a hunky, yet invisible, Patrick Swayze to the rear, communing with her and her clay. Or imagine Robin Williams, arms akimbo and face ecstatic with hokey transubstantiation, posed against some blue-screened landscape in What Dreams May Come.

Such cloying visions couldn't be further from the apparition that arises in this novel by Frucht, who takes her mysticism droll, with a sweetening dash of poetry. The author of such tart novels as Are You Mine? and Licorice is the opposite of a coy sentimentalist. Her titular spirit is forever reminding you of the limits of her so-called exalted state, specifically her annoying lack of a body ("I had to hold my hands close at my sides, although I had no sides . . . "). Polly is also far from omnipotent and prone to mishaps. Take the time she tries to get her youngest son's attention by having a man's plane drop from the sky and crash into a lake, when all she really meant to do was send down a falling star, or maybe just some rain.

If Polly's Ghost were pitched to a movie executive, the line "It's a cross between Powell- Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven and Being John Malkovich" would only begin to describe the book's bizarre charms. The perennial split between spirit and corporeal self is treated with far more absurdism here than in your average out-of-body yarn. If anything, Frucht has cooked up a novel so dense with strong personalities, strange episodes, and crisscrossing turns that she occasionally threatens to overwhelm her principal, and utterly moving, story with multiple wild swerves off the main track.

Abby Frucht takes her mysticism droll.
photo: John Iwata
Abby Frucht takes her mysticism droll.

Details

Polly's Ghost
By Abby Frucht
Scribner, 363 pp., $25

That line has to do with half-orphaned children and the watchful, sometimes capricious, dead parents who have been robbed of shaping their lives through normal earthly contact. Polly Baymiller was blessed with three sets of twins (two all-boy sets, one all-girl) before dying in childbirth with her last, solitary, baby: a boy named Tip. It is the attention of a nine-year-old Tip that Polly attempts to snag with the downed plane, which carried a man named Tom Bane. Ultimately her botched message does get across. Years later, Tip crosses paths with Tom's daughter, Honey. The two grown children recognize in each other the profundity of early, shape-changing loss, and this inevitable collision drives the bob-and-weave narrative of Polly's Ghost.

Polly can only make herself felt through laborious twists of fate. Mostly, she sweeps through the night on a whirling, restless wind, blowing in and out of Tip's life, trying to establish compromised connections. He is the child that Polly never got to mother. She never experienced the elemental touch and taste that binds parents to their infants, so now she keeps herself busy with a kind of agitated meddling. More than once, Polly likens her ghost-state to maternity: "A ghost can't just be, I whispered to Tip. Just like a mother can't lie on the couch all morning. There's too much to do, so much to take care of, and every so often mistakes to undo, like now."

Later, when Tip's best friend's death leaves another mother, Gwen, robbed of her son, Polly watches this kindred soul roam about her house, forlorn. Polly dips down as close as she can to Gwen: "We were standing pulse to pulse when she turned off the desk light. But I couldn't comfort her myself. It takes practice, being a ghost, and I didn't know how to help her. I was nothing but the static in the flannel of her shirt and how the posters seemed to quiver on the wall."

If only Frucht would always keep us this close to the meditative yet practical Polly. Instead she keeps sending her novel off into wacky digressions, including one involving a Vietnam vet and ex-con. These hefty chunks of Polly's Ghost would seem better given over to Polly's other children—one of the girl twins, Becka, is allotted some beguiling space, while the paired boys remain obscure. It's also tempting to know more about Polly's husband- left-behind, Jack, a man so organically virile he seems to will his hair never to turn gray. The flashes back to his union with Polly are ripe with lusty detail. Indeed, Frucht is best when pointing out how even a ghost's special powers can never match the smells of autumn or a deep kiss. In the end, Polly departs her own novel in the most quotidian manner possible: She's literally sneezed out of the book by a secondary character. It's a willfully mundane ending to Frucht's ambitious journey, which makes equal time for bluntness and rhapsody along the way.

 
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