Common ground

Ann Patchett’s Boston allegory
By DANA KLETTER  |  September 18, 2007

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SNOW GLOBE: Patchett’s investigation of race and class in Boston doesn’t hold up.

Run | by Ann Patchett | Harper | 312 pages | $25.95
Like the American naturalists of the last century, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, whose novels interrogated the social order, Ann Patchett examines race and class in her new novel, Run. Her drama begins when she sends a white SUV through a white-out on Mass Ave that nearly kills the black son of a rich white man.

The Doyles embody the heroic potential of the American dream retold for a multicultural world. An Irish Catholic family that by rights should have been Kennedy-esque in size and political promise is reconstituted after a series of losses and scandals. Frank Doyle, widower and former mayor of Boston, has one biological son, Sullivan, and two adopted sons, Tip and Teddy, virtually bequeathed to the Doyles by an anonymous black woman.

A Chappaquidick-like incident destroys Frank’s dream of political success and sends Sullivan into exile. All expectation rests on Tip and Teddy — gifted, bright, promising, and utterly uninterested in their father’s ambitions.

In Harvard Square, where Frank has taken the boys to a Jesse Jackson lecture, a car nearly cuts down Tip; he’s pushed to safety by a stranger who bears the brunt of the impact. The Doyles quickly learn she’s Tennessee Moser, the mother of Tip and Teddy — with her youngest daughter, Kenya, she’s been shadowing her boys for years, an invisible guardian angel. For the next 24 hours, as Tennessee lies in her hospital bed, each member of this conjoined family reckons with the outcome of an unexpected collision.

Kenya is self-sufficient, motivated in a way that her brothers are not. She has grown up in the projects only a few blocks from the gallery of Greek Revival and Italianate row houses of her brothers’ Union Park in the South End. Tip vacillates between medical school and biology, ichthyology in particular. He spends dreamy hours in the underground lab of the zoology department keeping company with 1.3 million species of fish preserved in jars. Teddy is drawn to the contemplative and metaphysical; a student at Northeastern, he’s considering the priesthood.

Kenya is a runner, and when Tip takes her to the Harvard track to work off some steam, he’s amazed by her ability and spirit: “Anger and sadness and a sense of injustice that was bigger than any one thing that had happened stoked an enormous fire in her chest and that fire kept her heart vibrant and hot and alive, a beautiful, infallible machine.”

Exchanges between the siblings illustrate the real distance between Kenya’s neighborhood and Tip and Teddy’s. When Kenya admires Tip’s neighborhood, he gives her a lecture on South End gentrification. “While they’re fixing the windows and picking up the trash and planting the flowers, they get rid of the poor people too. I mean the black people, the brown people.” “You still live over here,” Kenya points out, and Tip realizes that he hadn’t factored himself into the equation. “You have to be poor and black to get taken out of this place. I was only black.”

What Patchett has constructed, however, is a snow-globe Boston that can’t hold the real and fearful history of race in America or its continuing consequences. Her allegory is too beautiful and fanciful to capture and contain what is so shameful and ugly. And the weak ending doesn’t help. As in Bel Canto, her mesmerizing previous novel, the conclusion feels hastily composed, an almost ragged end after the fine smooth stretch of her prose.

ANN PATCHETT | Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline | September 26 | 617.566.6660

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