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AVAILABLE LIGHT by Ellen Currie (Summit: $16.95; 275 pp.)

February 23, 1986|RICHARD EDER

Rambeau could be a contemporary suburban Don Juan as redesigned by the editors of Ms. magazine at some inebriated late-evening session. He is a footloose but home-loving male in Ellen Currie's remarkably voiced first novel; an outsized, untidy man, a lover and lovable; and seen through the consciousness of a heroine who is even more outsized and even less tidy.

That is too "outsizes" in one paragraph, so I'll try to be exact. The characters in "Available Light," despite one or two wild cards and wild touches, are middle class and lead reasonably ordered lives. They seem eccentric, yet, again with a glaring exception or two, their eccentricity roots firmly in their normality.

Currie has made their voices and reflections rampage wildly through their own confines, so that when these confines buckle or budge, we have the sense that our own peace is being shattered. Her characters grow varicolored jungles in their small backyards. All backyards--and this is what the novel was invented to tell us--have jungle spores, though not all sprout as funny and particular as those in "Available Light."

The novel is about the separation and reunion of Kitty and Rambeau, two frazzled lovers approaching middle age. More essentially, it is about the battering that life has given to them and to the other characters, mostly Kitty's family, that they move among. More essentially still, because Currie's people are far more than their circumstances, it is about their retorts to the battering.

Umberto Eco, asked what his novel, "The Name of the Rose," was really about, replied that it was about adverbs. "Available Light" is about the words, spoken or meditated, of Kitty, Rambeau, Kitty's mother, her sister, brother-in-law and one or two others. Their words marvelously delineate them, much more than the occasionally contrived actions and personalities that Currie has arranged for them.

Kitty is a stylist for fashion photography; Rambeau plays saxophone in an Atlantic City cafe. Neither of these things defines them nearly as much as their capacity to console each other, and to miss each other when they separate. The separation has no particular reason for it, other than the sense that life is too much. The novel recounts this too-muchness, how Kitty and Rambeau eventually get through it and how others don't.

Meanwhile, here is Kitty's voice after Rambeau walks out: "I knew he was gone," she says, "because both sets of car keys were on my chest and so was Rambeau's flea-chewed grudge-holding little sour dog."

The vacuum that follows is of love and other things. Rambeau, itinerant musician, a magnet for women and for Kitty most of all, is a nurturer--he likes to cook, to clean, to repair things that break. He likes to iron, especially ruffles. "There's no sound like the sound of a fine man bashing away at an ironing board," Kitty reflects. In his absence, everything goes to pot. Kitty doesn't wash, refuses work, dresses in ragbag fashion. "The dog and I settled down to feeling lousy. We hung around the house letting gravity attack us." Rambeau, holed up in Atlantic City with a voracious teen-ager named Doreen, thinks mostly of Kitty. He has left his dog as a kind of presence, he writes her letters about himself, and sometimes dials the digits of her phone number, always taking care to get them in the wrong order.

Their mutual yearning, and the comic expedients they use to resist it or express it, provide much of the book's drive. Rambeau's letters sum up a wandering biography. He was close to his mother and sisters--hence his domestic talents--but they abandoned him when he was a child. His father was an alcoholic wreck, but he gave Rambeau an image of wildness before he bled to death in a drunken accident.

"Available Light" is, among other things, a Utopia of contemporary male-female relations. Rambeau has a voice of his own, but he tends to fit too squarely into post-feminist fantasy. His mother, nurturing and then ditching him, allows a feminine streak without effeminacy; his father, dying, provides a male example without overwhelming him. He is a wild rover who cooks; he loves many women, but Kitty most of all; and finally he comes back to her. It is a bit too tidy.

Still, there are plenty of crosscurrents to mess things up. Kitty's sister, married to a total modern disaster named Gordon--he emerges as caricature, yet paradoxically fuzzy--gradually goes mad in her effort to conceive a child. Doreen, a comical but coarsely realized character, takes sealed bids on the baby she may have conceived by Rambeau, Gordon or a number of other men. Conrad, a Hungarian pornographer, floats in and out, alternately cheering Kitty up and depressing her.

Finally, there is Kitty's mother, an Irish woman who is a blend of firm convention and an endless wandering imagination. "Our Lady of the Perpetual Cardigan," Kitty names her, and her stalwart and idiosyncratic decline in a chaotic world is one of the best and most moving things in the book.

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