David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

James Finney Boylan’s “The Constellations”

This book review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper on December 21, 1994.

I’ll wager that Johns Hopkins alumnus James Finney Boylan has at least one important novel inside him bursting to come out into the light of day. With a comic sensibility somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut and the Zucker Abrahams Zucker film team, Boylan has proven himself an adequate crafter of creative mayhem.

Unfortunately, witticisms and wisecracks do not a story make, and his second novel The Constellations comes off as — well, a little spacey. When we’re looking for character and subtext and all of the other things that make a book readable, all Boylan wants to deliver is whimsy. And when we’re looking for whimsy, Boylan dives overboard into slapstick.

The Constellations (the sequel to 1991’s similarly flawed The Planets) focuses on the extended family of one fifteen-year-old Phoebe Harrison in the suburban Pennsylvania town of Centralia, where a mine fire has been burning continuously for decades. But whereas in The Planets the Harrisons were riven apart by a bizarre series of circumstances (including death by skydiving mishap and kidnapping by a donkey-riding bandit), The Constellations undertakes the herculean task of reuniting them.

Together Phoebe Harrison and her kin form a sort of anti-Brady Bunch, a nuclear family with a few loose electrons. We have father Wedley, whose second wife Vicki cuckolds him with a dimwitted landscaper (once inside the cement mixer of his truck); mother Emily, who suddenly ditched the family years ago for the bottle; older daughter Demmie, now living with the singer for the Poison Squirrels and ransoming family pets for income; and Phoebe, the impressionable younger daughter trying to cope with all the chaos around her.

An improbable line of events sets the Harrison family and various friends and extended relatives all on a crash course for the Valentine’s Dance at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Along the way, there are multiple trysts between old flames and new, unexpected reunions, and abductions of pets, people, and works of art.

The Constellations sounds like a whole lot of fun. Instead, it plays out like an ultra-choreographed version of the Three Stooges — all punch line and no punch. The scene which exemplifies this most gives us Vicki attempting to screw husband Wedley to distraction in order for her lover Dwayne to sneak out the back window. Dwayne, however, misunderstands and attempts to make it out the bedroom window, idiotically forgetting to climb out of the clothes hamper he’s hidden in first.

So far, so good, until Boylan deals us a hand of forced Hollywood-style bedroom humor:

“I’m coming,” Wedley said.
“You’re going,” Vicki said, looking at Dwayne.

John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis did it better in A Fish Called Wanda.

For the time being, Boylan remains a talent in search of a vehicle, hopefully one with more craft and less craftiness than The Constellations.

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