There are allusions to the Salem witch trials in Daniel Akst's The Webster Chronicle, but the witch hunt it more precisely reflects is the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s, in which operators of and teachers at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were accused of ritual, satanic sexual abuse of children. Nowhere does the author make reference to that infamous case, but the events of his novel, which begin in November 1985, parallel it closely.
If you do not remember the McMartin case, that would fit in neatly with one of the lessons of this splendid and disturbing novel: lives that are cruelly and almost whimsically destroyed are then adding insult to injury quickly forgotten.
Some novels can be said to operate at a white-hot intensity of anger or rage. The Webster Chronicle operates at a sub-arctic level of loathing and disgust for the nearly universal venality it describes.
Chief agent of the loathing is Terry Mathers, an ex-big time newspaperman who edits the weekly Webster Chronicle in the college town of Webster (in, apparently, New York). Terry's wife, Abigail, from whom he is intermittently estranged, is publisher. Terry's father, Maury, is an overweening network television commentator who casts a shadow that Terry can't escape.
The spiral of venality and destruction begins with a spanking incident at the Alphabet Soup preschool in Webster. It shouldn't have happened, even if the boy who received the spanking was a nasty little piece of work, but it did, and from it spins a tornado of rumors and accusations and, ultimately, criminal charges. All, save the spanking, are utterly without foundation.
There are no white hats, except possibly for a fundamentalist preacher a surprise in itself, fundamentalist preachers, admirable or otherwise, being as rare in mainstream American novels as archbishops in Afghanistan.
Carefully, character by character, strand by strand, Akst weaves his rope of venality. Half the town uses the developing scandal for his or her own purposes. One woman uses it to deflect blame for her part in causing her daughter's death in an auto accident. Another woman wants to strike back at a disappointing life. A man falsely accuses his ex-wife to ruin her.
To the district attorney, the case is nothing but headlines that will help him win the governorship. To Terry's father, it's a chance to jump-start a flagging career. A child-abuse "expert" cares only about prevailing, no matter what the evidence or consequences.
The chief irony is that, away from the preschool, sexual abuse of children has been and is going on, all unnoticed. Adult sexual affairs flourish as the green bay tree, making Webster a kind of down-market Updike community.
Not even Terry escapes. First on one side of the issue, then on the other, he never redeems himself, but ends up, seemingly effortlessly and unwillingly, feathering his own nest out of the wreckage of the scandal.
The rope, eventually, hangs the persecuted preschool teachers. Their suffering, in prison and out, is terrible and goes totally unsuccored. One imprisoned woman's "sense of cosmic abandonment" stands for all. If you want to find a comparison to Salem, here would be the point.
Terry, however volitionless he appears, has more than a sneaking suspicion about what's at the bottom of it all. It is the decline of family life again, an issue that, for the modern novel, is about as unchic as a fundamentalist preacher. Yet it is a message as clear as if sent by Western Union. Terry had hoped that by moving to Webster he could keep his family from disintegrating the way his parents' had.
It didn't work. Even in Webster he and Abigail knew only "one or two still-married people." In the scandal's early stages, frazzled parents choose to ignore the rumors because they need the preschool so desperately.
"I think Webster s-sees its s-sins as child neglect, family dissolution, sexual obsession, lack of faith," concludes Terry, who suffers from stuttering.
One of the teachers, Emily, says upon getting out of prison, "I'm not worried. The world can't stay this bad forever."Oh, Emily.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.