An unwavering look at madness and its collateral damage
“A Kingdom of Madness,” a first novel self-published by Linda Levy. 331 pp. $15.99 softcover, $20.99 hardcover. Can be ordered through Island bookstores and online from Amazon and other sites.
You probably have not heard of Linda Levy the novelist. That’s because she spent 21 years writing her first one, “A Kingdom of Madness.” It is an extraordinary book, an allegory that demonstrates our capability for self-destruction and healing.
The story of a successful Philadelphia Main Line doctor’s descent into madness and the radiant effect on his family stunned me at times. “Madness” is not a comfortable read but the story held me for four hours when I first picked it up.
I wanted to put it down but could not. I was hoping that if I continued to read, that someone or some societal deus ex machina would appear to prevent the fate toward which the doctor was marching himself and his family. I wanted an end to the madness while there was still time.
Let’s be clear. There is no Hannibal Lecter stuff here, a minimum of physical violence, hardly any yelling and screaming. “Madness” describes dysfunctional at its worst, and we encounter that phenomenon way more often than we do gourmands with offbeat tastes. In the complex, intertwined layers of “Madness,” Ms. Levy describes outcomes that are really possible when dysfunction morphs into insanity.
The plot recounts, over a 15-year period beginning in the late 1960s, the lives of two generations of offspring from a driven, asocial man. Dr. Leslie Davis has spent this entire adult life seeking his prize, chief of medicine at a prestigious Main Line Philadelphia hospital. He discarded a wife and son along the way of his self-absorption.
When we join the story, the doctor has achieved and lost his post, after his bungled attempt to abort a pregnancy from his dalliance with a hospital staffer. He has moved with his partner, Frances, to a rustic house he bought years ago in the Pine Barrens, a corner of Appalachian culture an hour outside Philadelphia. They have three children together.
His abandoned son, Spec, now in his 20s, travels to the Pine Barrens from his coastal Massachusetts home and finds his father and Frances and the brood of tots living in semi-squalor. Over time, the living conditions deteriorate further and the family disassociates further from societal norms. The children run naked, eat with their hands, sleep where they fall. They do not attend school or learn to read or write. There is no support from the doctor, no emotional interaction. He simply observes and records their lives while quietly tormenting their mother until, just as quietly, she becomes insane.
Spec has his own issues, and soon after his visit, develops an alcoholic lifestyle that threatens to destroy him.
Whew, right? But this is also where the layers of the story become fascinating. The children begin to demonstrate the human capacity to survive and thrive. They create their own family unit, use their imaginations to create complex games and pursuits. Hundreds of miles away, Spec has descended further into alcoholism. He must decide whether to die or to emerge, hand over painful hand and live in reality.
Ms. Levy lives in Lawrenceville, N.J., hard by Princeton University, with her husband and three children. The Levy’s also have a home in Chilmark, a place discovered by her father, Julius (Dooley) Rosenwald II, in the late 1930’s. Mr. Rosenwald died in 2003 at age 89. He was an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist, well-regarded in his community.
More on the writer
Humorous writing has been Ms. Levy’s metier. She has co-written three other books, humorous guides to healthy lifestyles. She has written greetings for Hallmark cards, a humor column for the The (daily) Trentonian newspaper and contributed to The New York Times and other publications.
“A Kingdom of Madness” is not funny. It is an unswerving look at the dark side of the human condition, a departure from the humorous approach in Mrs. Levy’s past work.
In a recent telephone interview from her New Jersey home, Mrs. Levy talked about the change. “Humor is a quirky way of looking at life. It seems to me that life is like a Rorschach test. If you look left, it is funny. If you look right, it is not. This is my first foray into the darker side, a big, big departure for me. Many years ago I knew someone who told me a life story that became the nugget for ‘A Kingdom of Madness.’
“Philadelphia is just one hour from the Pine Barrens. We knew a lot of professional people and I wanted to see what would happen if they had a fall from grace. I’m going to book discussion groups [about her book]. What constitutes madness? What passes for sanity? There’s a lot to talk about.
“I love these people in ‘Madness,'” Ms. Levy said. “It took a generation of my life to write. I knew it was a wonderful story to tell and when it was finished, I felt exhilaration: I did it. I was able to tell this story as I wanted to tell it.”