Review of Stefan Merrill Block's "The Storm at the Door"

My review of Stefan Merrill Block’s novel The Storm at the Door appeared in the Dallas Morning News last Sunday, and can be found at this url:
It’s an earnest novel about his grandparents’ lives, and at times I felt it suffered from his belief that his grandfather’s story (who was in a psychiatric facility in 1962, for exposing himself while drunk—in 2011 the clinic might have just been a rehab facility) was more important than it is, at least to me. There’s an evil psychiatrist who seemed like the wicked Dr. Chilton in The Silence of the Lambs, the second reference to that film/novel I’ve noticed this month.
Here’s the text version:
THE STORM AT THE DOOR/By Stefan Merrill Block
Random House; 368 pages, $25
The Madness in Families
Raised in Plano, author Stefan Merrill Block’s, “The Story of Forgetting,” was a critically acclaimed debut novel about the anguish of Alzheimer’s. His second novel, “The Storm at the Door,” is another in the recent trend of “fictional memoirs,” fiction based on actual events, in the vein of Jeanette Walls’ “Half-Broke Horses,” though much grimmer and inward-focused. It concerns the tortuous life story of Block’s grandparents—his grandfather, Frederick Merrill, emotionally disturbed and alcoholic, and his grandmother, Katharine, the long-suffering woman who eventually had enough.
Most of the story unfolds at the “fictional” Mayflower clinic, a psychiatric care facility near Boston, patterned after the famous McLean Hospital, in which Block’s grandfather was a patient in 1962. This mixing of fact/fiction is hit and miss. Frederick’s life is tragic in a familiar way: he drinks too much, seduces women while living as a (badly) married man, and indulges in various sins that family members might forgive and others simply dismiss as boorish behavior. He’s admitted into psychiatric care for indecent exposure, which he tries to portray as a “joke,” an alibi that many no doubt wish would get them off the hook.
At the Mayflower clinic, a villain emerges in the guise of Albert Canon, chief psychiatrist, who more closely resembles the despicable, self-centered Dr. Frederick Chilton in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Canon’s sins are also familiar—punishing patients with electroshock therapy or solitary confinement, taking away their writing materials, picking on their emotional weaknesses. Guilty of his own bad behavior in an affair with one of assistants, Rita, Canon has no redeemable qualities, and at times seems a caricature of a quack academic psychiatrist. One scene in particular recalls Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which is an awkward comparison, in that “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a much more daring novel, with literary inventiveness, anguish, humor, and ultimately hope, while Block’s novel is somber and claustrophobic.
The other patients at Mayflower are a mixture of the famous and the bizarre: as is pointed out several times, Mayflower is a reputable institution, counting the poet Robert Lowell and the mathematician John Nash as patients, but in this novel, the most important characters besides Frederick and Canon are Marion Foulds, a multiple-personality disorder sufferer, and Professor Schultz, a broken academic, who both commit suicide.
The life story of Katharine Merrill, Frederick’s wife, is a sad shadow to his own. She suffers his bad behavior for years, accepts him home from the clinic and attempts to carry on, ultimately to end her life in a manner oddly similar to her broken husband. The climactic moment in her life—through the eyes of her young grandson, at least—occurs when she burns the writings her husband composed while at Mayflower. It’s an act born of bitterness, resignation, and a desire to be loose from the past. Ultimately “The Storm at the Door” is itself a reckoning with the past, an attempt to make sense of familial mysteries—lyrical, touching and heartfelt.

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