Lark and Termite

By JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS

Jayne Anne Phillips astonished readers with her prodigious first book of short stories, Black Tickets (1979), and her masterful Vietnam-era novel, Machine Dreams. She returns full blast with her sixth work of fiction, a novel that explores how casualties of the Korean War reverberate through a patched-together West Virginia family. Lark and Termite carries clear Faulknerian lineage: Like The Sound and the Fury, its story is told, in language laced with idiosyncrasies, by a quartet of distinctive voices, one of whom, like Faulkner’s Benjy, is mentally limited but gifted with a special interior vision. But it’s Phillips’s fluid and original prose and her imaginative virtuosity that put her in the same league with her southern forebear. The four storytelling voices in Lark and Termite are exquisitely balanced. Corporal Robert Leavitt’s tale of war focuses on several days in July 1950, when, mortally wounded by his own forces, he is pinned down with a group of Korean refugees in a railroad tunnel at No Gun Ri. The other narratives are set in July 1959, as a big storm bears down on Winfield, West Virginia. Leavitt’s son Termite, born while his father is fighting in Korea, has hydrocephaly and cannot speak or walk. His perceptions are conveyed in intense flashes of poetic brilliance. Termite’s stepsister Lark, his major caretaker, is feisty and capable, with a palpable sensuality. Their aunt Nonie, who carries the family’s secrets, adds a note of adult realism to the precarious situation in which the orphans find themselves, with Social Services aiming to separate them. As the novel unfolds, and the monstrous storm floods the town, the central figure of mystery becomes Lola, Nonie’s rebellious sister, the seductive wife Robert Leavitt yearns for as he lies dying, the mother Lark and Termite can only conjure from hand-me-downs and shards of memory. Lola’s story, and theirs, converge in this emotionally complex and deeply rewarding novel.