Ellen Meeropol’s debut novel tackles bizarre cult rituals, political violence, drug abuse, infanticide, and the Klan.
Pippa Glenning is the youngest member of the Family of Isis, a religious sect in Springfield, Massachusetts. A few years back, Tian, the Family’s leader, saved Pippa from a life of street prostitution, bringing her into the fold to sell spearmint tea out of a downtown storefront and live out his exegesis of Isis, an Egyptian fertility goddess, half-bird, half-woman, “bare breasts and fierce eyes.” Soon Pippa is pregnant with her second child; she spends her days gazing at the mural of Isis painted above the fireplace at the group home. She has also been working through residual guilt: Back home in Georgia, she might have been responsible for a Ku Klux Klan lynching.
But all is not well in the Family. Pippa’s first child froze to death during a winter solstice ceremony, a rite involving nude dancing, pregnancy-worship, an abandoned nature trail, and peyote-spiked wine. Tian is in jail, the Family is in tatters, and Pippa is under house arrest, where she receives weekly visits from a home care nurse, who herself is the daughter of Weathermen-styled revolutionaries.
Ellen Meeropol has bitten off a lot in her debut novel, House Arrest. Dead children, cult ritual, political violence, drugs, prison, the Klan. And that’s not to mention spina bifida, patient privacy, interracial relationships, computer hacking, handlebar mustaches, or the skinheads who show up near the novel’s close. With all this freight, it is to her credit that Meeropol’s book seems, in fits and starts, real and urgent. Unfortunately, the novel never coheres.
You couldn’t find a reader more partial to Meeropol’s ambition. I have a soft spot for novels that tackle potentially melodramatic subject matter, and for books that attempt to depict how social pressures influence the way people act. I treasure John Irving, Robert Stone, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Price. But Meeropol’s novel fails to bring these social issues to life, and the melodrama never really sings. The reasons are several. First, much of the novel is narrated in a voice that wavers between noir and Steve Martin: “I don’t know what I expected to find Monday morning at the Hall of Justice, but it wasn’t an x-ray security scanner with a conveyer belt, a metal-detector gateway, and two armed guards.” Secondly, most of the interesting action takes place before the novel begins. A lynching, the formation of a utopian cult, the bombing of a draft office: all of these are presented in flashbacks that are more persuasive and urgent than what actually happens in the novel’s present. Here is that doomed solstice ritual:
They had all worn white. Silent and almost invisible in the blowing snow, they slipped under the massive bronze arch into the park. They walked single file, even the twins, following the narrow path through skeleton trees. They didn’t need flashlights. All day, fat flakes had melted on the city streets, covered branches and decaying leaves and pin needles. Although the solstice moon was shrouded, the snow crystals absorbed and mirrored its weak light. Pippa’s head barely reached Tian’s shoulder, but she stretched into his footprints, rocking Abby who slept cradled in a blanket heavy across her breasts.
This is some of Meeropol’s best writing. There is tension, drama, a beginning, middle, and end. It feels vital.
That’s less true of the present action. People say things to each other, go from one room to another, travel home for a funeral, enter the Hall of Justice, but little of what these characters do actually affects the outcome of the story—all the drama comes from the revelation of secrets.
This is not necessarily bad, of course: Oedipus Rex works the same way. Maybe Meeropol’s idea is that our decisions are determined by social or historical pressures. Still, the present action of House Arrest feels hungover, as if the characters are struggling to remember the exact cause of their suffering.
Meeropol seems to be telling us that our ethical dilemmas—and there are plenty in House Arrest—have no greater importance than to help us work through past trauma. A nurse’s dithering over whether to help a patient break house arrest is not, to Meeropol, interesting as a story: instead it is a symbol, or echo, of the nurse’s struggle to forgive her father, and the decision to couch the conflict in a melodrama of family secrets and revolutionary political action has the effect of trivializing it.
House Arrest has the potential to be captivating. There are hints of compelling, even profound stories here. Tian, former gang leader, current cult leader, literally wrote the book of Isis. (Actually, he calls it a manual). After a brutal gang fight in New Jersey, Tian researches various communal religious organizations—he “wanted to avoid the biggest mistakes that other groups have made.” He decides on Isis, and calls in his former rival to co-head the cult. After some vague trouble in Newark, the Family of Isis moves to Massachusetts.
I’m reminded of King Benjamin Purnell, head of the House of David commune, an early-20th-century religious colony known best for their barnstorming baseball team. Based in Michigan, members of the House of David lived in a mansion, wore long hair and beards, operated an amusement park, owned a cruise ship line, dug for limestone, pioneered cold storage, and toured the country’s vaudeville circuit, teaching Purnell’s gospel of equality, celibacy, vegetarianism, and the second coming. The House of David helped southwestern Michigan become a tourist and business Mecca, but a cloud of infamy gathered when several young women accused Purnell of sexual indiscretion, “purifying” them when they were as young as fourteen. Purnell was ousted and died soon after; allegedly he is buried in a glass coffin, location known to only a few faithful followers.
Now that is a story. Technological innovation, charismatic evangelism, communal utopianism, pedophilia, secret burial, baseball: It smacks of something weird and essential about the way that business, sex, and religion are tied up in America. Meeropol could have done something similar in House Arrest. Even the most quotidian of the novel’s situations—the everyday life of the Family of Isis—has the potential to be explosive. Here we have the Family in decline: Without Tian to lead in worship, the Family bickers about what to fix for dinner, about how to educate the children, about who works what shifts at the tea shop, about the inconsistencies in Tian’s teachings. When Tian calls home from prison, he sounds not like a seductive, power-mad oracle but like a middle manager; the leader, too, is lost. The Family is struggling to be, well, a family. There is a fascinating story here, but we don’t get to read it.