WEDDING CHAOS (From The New York Times)

Published: October 22, 1989

Cathie Pelletier's first novel, The Funeral Makers, earned glowing reviews when it appeared in 1986, with critics vying to see who could find just the right words to describe its raucous charms. Was that first novel a fluke? Beginner's luck? Could Cathie Pelletier's second novel, Once Upon a Time on the Banks, possibly live up to such high praise and expectations? The answer, thankfully, is yes.

Ms. Pelletier has written another bawdy, poetic crazy quilt of a book about the people who come from and are still living in the little town of Mattagash, Me. It's a place that prompts one of her characters, the funeral parlor heir Marvin Randall Ivy 3d, a loathsome, greasy-haired, pimply-faced, teen-age hell-raiser, to remark: ''What drug could possibly be worse for me than a week in this town?''

Randy Ivy is forced to this extremity by the actions of his cousin, 23-year-old Amy Joy Lawlor, a young woman dangerously teetering on the brink of becoming an old maid, who announces to her mother, Sicily, that she intends to marry a young man from Watertown, Mattagash's version of the wrong side of the tracks, who is not only French but a Roman Catholic! Upon hearing this dreadful news, Sicily, like any mother worth her salt from Maine to Mississippi, takes to her bed with the vapors.

''There are four hundred and fifty-six people in this town and I will die a thousand deaths in front of each and every one of them,'' she tells her daughter. ''You'll kill me with this. You mark my words.'' To which Amy Joy replies: ''I'll take my chances. . . . I'm marrying Jean Claude Cloutier in three weeks. Whether your organs like it or not.''

Sure enough, the invitations are sent out and plans for the wedding lurch forward. Arriving from Portland are Sicily's older sister, Pearl Ivy; her husband, Marvin Sr.; their son, Marvin Jr., and their daughter-in-law, Thelma, a Valium-popping recluse who is having wild sexual fantasies about Bob Barker, the host of the television game show ''The Price Is Right,'' brought on by her recent discovery of pudgy Marvin Jr.'s affair with an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike who's a secretary at the family-owned funeral parlor. And, last but not least, there is Pearl and Marvin's grandson, the aforementioned Randy.

Pearl and Marvin Sr. stay at the old McKinnon homestead, while Marvin Jr., Thelma and Randy - along with Marvin Jr.'s secretary-mistress, who was definitely not invited to the wedding but decided to come anyway - all end up at the seedy yet still grossly overpriced Albert Pinkham Motel.

Mattagash is filled with anticipation. Has Pearl aged well? Will poor Sicily hold up under the strain? Will the groom get cold feet? While waiting for the wedding, Pearl begins to hear ghosts in her childhood home and Randy proceeds to smoke a motel Bible, page by page, while Marvin Jr. almost has a nervous breakdown trying to keep his wife and mistress from running into each other.

Meanwhile, other folks across town, although not invited, are still looking forward to the wedding. Chief among these are the families of the Gifford brothers, Pike and Vinal. If you thought the South had a copyright on outrageous families, think again. The Giffords of Maine give even Erskine Caldwell's turnip-snatching Jeeter Lester family of ''Tobacco Road'' a run for their money. When not watching soap operas, cheating insurance companies or breeding more little Giffords, they specialize in stealing car parts and are tickled pink about all the out-of-town hubcaps that will soon be arriving, theirs just for the taking. Ah, the joys of a spring wedding! But, alas, a spring wedding in Mattagash does not necessarily mean spring. It can also mean a cold, snowy day. What happens on the day of the wedding and who gets out of town alive? Therein lies the hilarious and tragic tale.

In Once Upon a Time on the Banks, Cathie Pelletier accomplishes what every great novelist should. She creates a place, invites you in, walks you around, talks to you, lets you see and feel and hear it, allows you to get to know the people. And once Ms. Pelletier has you listening to the life that goes on along the banks of the river, she rushes you by the doors of the past, the present and the future. And she reminds you that some things are as inevitable as the flow of that same river.

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