When family conflict erupts in murder, bereaved survivors usually say the outburst was unforeseeable, unimaginable. That is particularly true when the killer is, like Plastics Heir Antony Baekeland, an attractive and intelligent young man whose literary promise has been asserted by notables like Novelist James Jones. But when Tony Baekeland murdered his mother, few people in the family's circle were altogether surprised. Some of them suggested that Barbara Baekeland, a social-climbing former model who gave her son smother love but no stability, had been courting her own death. Said Attorney Samuel Shaw: "That's a real question--who killed who. It was a real dance, a minuet."
Tony Baekeland grew up with two competing family identities. His great-grandfather, Leo Baekeland, was the inventor of Bakelite and the "father of plastics." His parents fancied themselves aristocrats. They socialized with Greta Garbo and Tennessee Williams, the Duchess of Sutherland and Yasmin Aga Khan. But they were vagabonds, getting by on good looks, lordly manners and copious spending. Brooks Baekeland was a self-proclaimed writer who never published. His wife was an artist too busy to paint. Each of them had a love of danger and a propensity for violence. Each seemed more interested in boasting of Tony's gifts than in providing the selfless attention he needed.
The only child pulled the wings off flies. His father saw it as a scientific inquiry into aerodynamic equilibrium. The adolescent Tony picked up older boys and brought them home. His mother loathed his homosexuality and eventually tried to eradicate it by having sex with him. Spooky stories abounded about Tony's strange disappearances, his attempts to hide himself (once in a school laundry chute), his bursts of exhibitionism. Although he had left numerous prep schools, he and his mother decided he was ready, with brief cramming, to enroll at Oxford. His father looked on from afar with contempt. Brooks had repeatedly tried to leave his wife; she responded by attempting suicide four tunes, the last when he departed with a girl a generation younger who came into their home as Tony's steady date.
Savage Grace, a deadpan chronicle of this cesspool of a household, is presented as a collage of documents and reminiscences, in the manner of the 1982 best seller Edie, another glimpse of self-destruction among the elite. The mélange is repetitive yet oddly incomplete, particularly about the family's finances. The absence of a sustained narrative and the mixed-up chronology demand a slow, close reading. There is no attempt at redeeming social importance, and one wonders why Brooks Baekeland and other central characters allowed such an invasion of privacy. Still, the story is evoked with arresting detail. The structural weaknesses of Savage Grace do not lessen the power of horror. --By William A. Henry III