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THE MAN WHO LOVED LEVITTOWN by W. D. Wetherell (University of Pittsburgh: $12.95; 145 pp.)

February 23, 1986|ALLEN BOYER | Boyer teaches at the University of Oklahoma. and

"The Man Who Loved Levittown," by W. D. Wetherell, has been published for winning the Drue Heize Literature Prize, the fifth volume of short stories to be so honored. One understands the judges' decision. Wetherell, who was born on Long Island and now lives in New Hampshire, writes well of suburban life and wrong-side-of-the-tracks New England. His range is broader, however: wartime London, carnival sideshows and the inner city. His writing is always craftsmanlike, and some of these stories are memorable.

The title story, which won an O. Henry Award, is the monologue of a retired aerospace worker. Tommy DiMaria remembers how Levittown, Long Island, was born--the postwar days when Long Island was all farmland and beach, Grumman had jobs for the asking, and any veteran could get a mortgage. Then his wife died, and his friends moved to Florida--and now he stands besieged by pushy neighbors and eager real-estate agents. DiMaria is angry and frantic, and plans to burn his house down rather than sell. "I want to make sure everyone on the block gets to see what $50,000, 32 years, looks like going up in smoke," he mutters.

"If Richard Uncle Richard were a tennis shot, it would almost certainly be a lob." With that sentence, which opens "The Lob," Wetherell crosses into John Cheever country. Richard Mansfield is the son of a rich WASP family, balloon-faced at 34 and already heading downhill, who lives to play tennis. The family court was where he met the first girl he dated, lost his temper at the only woman he ever cared for, saw his own uncle Richard die of a heart attack. As he plays what may be his last game, these memories flash across the court, blocking shots he needs to make.

Surreal is an overused adjective, but it fits "Nickel a Throw." This story is about a man who has volunteered to aid a church bazaar by perching on a stool above a tub of water. Chances to dunk him, by throwing a baseball at a target, sell for a nickel each. To drum up business, he jeers at passers-by. "Cretins!" he yells--then "Wife beater!" and finally "Poisoner of the air! You fired Henry Waite because he suggested putting in pollution controls." As his vehemence increases, he takes the falls harder and harder and sees a throng of newcomers join the line in front of his booth: an old girlfriend, his dead parents, generals and businessmen, a line stretching "past the Ferris wheel, past the church, up Main Street toward the interstate highway where it forms a black strip on the lighter gray."

Wetherell's eye for detail and ear for phrases never fail him, but some of his themes veer close to predictability.

"Volpi's Farewell," in which a retired opera star watches his son in a sixth-grade production of "La Boheme," is tinged with sentiment. In "North of Peace," a nuclear freeze activist tries to proselytize in a Vermont Laundromat. The woman he talks to is young, poor, tired and burdened; she takes one of his pamphlets, but only so she can swat her 4-year-old with it.

"Spitfire Autumn" beats out a familiar counterpoint between the London of 1944, where a girl could miraculously make invalid soldiers walk by sweeping them onto the dance floor, and the London of 1985, where her nephew sells British medals to German collectors, and a young Cabinet minister warns that the days of miracles are past.

Should Wetherell be hailed as a second Cheever?

Not yet. He needs to deal with consistently stronger themes, and he ought to re-examine some of the assumptions he wrote from: His respect for old people and the old days could easily develop into premature fogeyism. He has some of a good writer's strengths, however--a knack for characterization, an effortless style and considerable imagination--and one is glad these stories were published.

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