Monday, January 17, 2005

Been meaning to do this: dumping two reviews from the past year that were commissioned and, for one reason or another, never ran.

What to Wear to See the Pope By Christine Lehner. Carroll & Graf. 224 pp. $23.00

There’s no such thing as a small event for Ursula Codwell, the narrator of the ten loosely-connected stories in Christine Lehner’s debut collection. A wife and mother with a sour marriage, a harried family life, a rotating series of medical problems, and the kind of pedantic interest in everything French and Catholic (especially tortured saints) that annoys everyone around her, Ursula sees life as a series of clues whose pattern eludes her, and even the most mundane occurences yield fresh perplexities.

During a hospital visit in "Twins Again," she considers the possibility that the cyst attached to her uterus is either the twin she always wanted, or her soul, "besmirched with a lifetime of unconfessed sins." In "The Knife," she tries to figure out why she keeps cutting her fingers on a knife left in the kitchen sink. Is the connection sexual or metaphoric – does she, as a friend suggests, have a need to reopen old wounds? Clothes obsess her repeatedly; choosing the right outfit for a papal visit, for example, could just be the key to the future: "If I saw the Pope, and did it properly, then perhaps I would emerge not only blessed but somehow wiser, somehow able to finally tell the difference between what mattered and what did not."

Ursula has both the cool, self-deprecating humor of someone just barely holding it all together, and the vulnerability of someone who isn't always as self-aware as she thinks. The stories vary between tightly focused and ambiguous; just as Ursula is mystified by the what one thing has to do with the other, following her train of thought can have a similar effect on the reader. The search is the thing, and Lehner makes it both entertaining and bittersweet.

An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin. 256 pages. $24.00

Ward Just's An Unfinished Season certainly feels unfinished. It's one of those books that spends its entire length just warming up.

This story of growing up is recalled over the distance of years, by an older man reviewing and contemplating his coming of age. His name is Wilson "Wils" Ravan, raised in the sleepy "nowheresville" of Quarterday on the fringes of Chicago in the late 1950s, when he was 19. Wils doesn't quite know who he is yet or will become; "At nineteen you inhabit a multitude of personalities, trying them on like hats," he tells us.

Wils' father, Teddy, is a well-to-do industrialist who runs a thriving business that produces stationary and who carries himself with all the confidence of a man who knows the score, delivering pearls of wisdom to his son about life, women and success -- not a few of which recall some very old issues of Esquire. Wils' mom is one of those fretful stay-at-home types who always seem on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Theirs has long been a semi-pleasant domestic life, but there are darker clouds looming. The family enters a true Eisenhower-era crisis when the workers at Teddy's plant strike for better wages; Teddy feels personally insulted and refuses to budge. Things get ugly. Death threats are phoned in and a brick gets hurled through the window, shaking Teddy's sense of pride and security, and shattering his paternal affection toward the men who depend on him for a livelihood.

Wils is uniquely positioned to view American life as it is about to go through a sea-change, when the stability of family life and the values they represent no longer seem like a sure thing. Like his father, Wills will face his own tests of personal integrity as he begins to make his way in the world, first by taking a job with a sleazy Chicago tabloid and then by dating Aurora Brune, a lovely young high-society debutante.

Wils has a foot in two worlds, high and low, both of which are typically shallow and feature stereotypes we've come to recognize: cynical and bitter middle-aged hacks in one and snotty, upper crust swells in the other.

Aurora's father, Jack, is a Freudian psychologist who knows everyone (the young Marlon Brando makes a guest appearance) and who has an air of mystery surrounding him that has something to do with his days as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. When he commits suicide somewhere in the middle of the story, the book seems to have finally found its feet, but that's just a ruse. As Wils tries to search for some meaning to this impulsive act, the author seems less interested than his protagonist. Ward seems bored with the idea of pursuing a traditional narrative where you discover the reason behind irrational acts, but it's never all that clear to just what his real purpose is. The novel is steeped in observation and atmosphere, but whatever wobbly sense Wils makes of his past isn't illuminating, provided he found any at all.

One senses throughout that Just is about to push this memory of things past to some other level, something we didn't see coming. Unfortunately, it never wiggles free of the grip of its own nostalgia.

P.S. I just didn't get Ward Just, obviously. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post thought it was a great novel.

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