Gurney's Inn
January 10, 2007

Between The Covers

Called a "darkly comic masterpiece," given a starred review in Publishers Weekly and garnering raves from the pros as noir fiction at its twisted best, Four Kinds of Rain by Robert Ward may take some getting used to, unless you're a Ward watcher.

A prize-winning novelist whose talents have also been on display in "Miami Vice," "Hill Street Blues," "New York Undercover" and "The Division," Ward delivers in his latest bizarre and violent excursion into the criminal mind a tale at once so real and surreal that its disparate comic and brutal elements defy integration.

Add to this odd mix of social commentary and gory detail ("Pink, distended bowels hung off the walls like some kind of blown-apart Mexican piñata, but with no candies") a small serving of romantic love, where sexual violence would more likely be expected, and Four Kinds of Rain emerges as a so-called realistic story of pathological descent and also as fantasy-satire — if such a combination can be imagined.

Of course, the author intends that the reader so imagine, given that the novel is divided into four parts, each named for a kind of rain — snow, stone, light and blood — and that each kind figures as both natural occurrence and metaphor.

One enters Ward's strange world by way of a third-person interior monologue delivered by middle-aged Dr. Robert Wells, a.k.a. Dr. Bob. He's known to his old pals in his crummy Baltimore "hood" as Bobby, a psychologist with a dying practice, whose wife has left him and who has reached rock bottom financially. An extensive acknowledgments list includes Brent Staples (alive) and the famous radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing (dead).

Dr. Bob's only paying patient is an art dealer, Emile Barden, who obsesses about a valuable Sumerian mask he thinks a competitor is trying to steal. The reader at first identifies with Bob, though he's a drinker and a loser, because he seems to be a victim of his own idealism, an infinitely compassionate therapist for the poor, a '60s idealist, who never gave in.

Only as the story progresses and Dr. Bob unflinchingly turns to theft and murder, do his rationalizations put distance between him and the reader. But at the start, he seems pretty sane. He's drifting, bored, depressed, his only relief playing guitar with a local group, the Rockaholics, in a grungy club.

Then "she" walks in — a sexy, blonde, blues singer from W. VA. Bob is smitten, though anxious that he has nothing to offer her. But wait, didn't that art dealer say that the mask he has locked in a safe is worth millions? (A side note: this must be the season for knocking art dealers in novels — they seem to be turning up increasingly as evil presences.)

Ward is sharp as a blade savaging the pretensions and deluded hopes of the hippie set, of whom Dr. Bob, the only one of his Johns Hopkins set to live out the radical dream of helping others, is a prime example. Four Kinds of Rain takes aim at the messianic narcissism and hypocritical sense of entitlement that underlay flower power.

Dr. Bob knows that what he's about to do goes against every humane and equitable principle he fought for on the hippie barricades, but, becoming a criminal feels "so right," so he's "laughing his ass off," finally standing up for himself, fighting back at all the Emile Bardans and suburbanites who sold out. And so, like a refuge from an Edgar Allan Poe tale, Bob makes his maniacal moves. He acquiesces in a plan an ex-con buddy devises, though he doesn't want to injure anyone.

The buddy replies: "if Martin Luther King had been a thief [gas] is what he would have used." Makes sense, Bob concludes. "No wonder the public liked clever criminals so much more than they did psychologists. They risked more, and they were physically brave. Psychologists had more in common with, say, movie critics and other wimps."

As the fantasy psychosis kicks in, replete with plot coincidences and predictable episodic turns, Bob finally has no compunctions about doing anything, to anyone. If you like mid-life crises à la Stephen King, Four Kinds of Rain is the book for you.

Four Kinds of Rain by Robert Ward, St. Martin's, 277 pp., $22.95.

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