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THE CONGRESSMAN'S DAUGHTER by Craig Nova (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence: $16.95; 301 pp.)

April 13, 1986

Only the woods are true and serious, Craig Nova seems to be saying: the clarity of a shaded pool, the muscular grace of a brook trout, the uncurling of a well-cast line, the stony obduracy of New England farmland.

In a sense, "The Congressman's Daughter," like its predecessor, "The Good Son," is an attempt to reintroduce awe into our civilized and trivialized landscape. Nova's brooding story of a woman tormented by a brute of a father and a monster of a husband, is played out in a Vermont-like countryside. Her struggle against assorted personal dooms magnifies what might once have been termed, in a long-gone literary mode, the spirit of the land.

It is an anthropomorphism where the weather and the light, the fauna and the flora, reflect upon and are reflected in the melodramatic emotions of the human actors. Nova's transaction benefits his landscape, which does indeed take on a heightened and haunted effect, but it doesn't do much for his characters.

These, at least in intention, are something close to hallucinations; all the more, because of the raw and often preposterous quality of their actions and emotions. Under their apparent vividness, they are as violent and as insubstantial as ghosts.

Nova's protagonist is Alexandra, the fey and buffeted daughter of Harlow Pearson, a wealthy notable who served as a congressman for eight years but returns to spend his last years in his rural New England home. He is a hard man and a womanizer, passionate and taciturn. His wife dies when Alexandra is an adolescent; their subsequent relations are a mixture of fascination and distance; their only overt link over a steamy mutual subconscious is the trout fishing he teaches her.

Alexandra runs off and returns, pregnant. She wants to have the baby, and Harlow wants her to abort it. They wager; if she can catch a monstrous trout that lurks in their stream, she will have her way. Before she does, Harlow dies. Defiance is succeeded by posthumous submission; she marries her father's loathsome assistant, Bryce McCann, a crook and a blackmailer.

Alexandra's story is told by that most irritating of fictional devices: an aged and omniscient narrator. He is a rich neighbor, a confidant of hers, a little in love. He is a cautionary, as full of retrospective foreboding and as impotently indignant about the sad things that befall his protege, as a Greek chorus relating the folly of a king.

Greek choruses would look pretty silly if their loftiness were not dedicated to grand and tragic affairs. Nova's narrator, gnomic and enraged by turns, cranks up mysterious grandeur around utterly far-fetched affairs. Their foolishness makes his elevation ridiculous; and once he begins to seem ridiculous, we no longer give credit to his oracular tone. It is a descending spiral.

Among the highly strained things related in the narrator's doomy and elegiac voice are, for example, the fish wager. Apart from its improbability, there are the elaborations. Harlow sneaks out to try to catch the fish himself. In order to scare Alexandra away, he lays out a torn and stained garment near the stream to suggest that a rapist is on the loose.

Alexandra puts on a mermaid costume to present a yearly angler's prize in the town nearby. She does it to scrape up acquaintance with the winner, Willy--later he becomes her lover--so that he will give her his secret trout-lure. After Harlow dies, she and Willy dynamite the pond; a sort of filial revenge on the monster fish.

Bryce is a lopsided pastiche of a smarmy villain. He minces and bows. "Charles Meson is here," he tells Alexandra when the lawyer arrives to read Harlow's will. "Of Meson Charles and Crump, the prestigious Washington law firm." Meson himself talks like a futurist play. "I have opinions only on mechanics, on methods," he says as he walks in. "Substance is of no consequence. Understood? Good." And, as he leaves: "Job done. Pleased to have served. Wishes. Regrets as always."

The couple's married life is a nightmare. Alexandra, who starts out as a liberated if messed-up woman of the 1960s, reverts to a pale, frightened figure out of an underground Victorian novel. Bryce, figuratively twirling his non-existent mustachios, blackmails her into leaving him in control of half her fortune by threatening to reveal to her daughter--born after the wedding--that he is not her real father. For some reason, Alexandra fears that the revelation will drive the daughter, Anne, to a life of prostitution.

Bryce hires a seducer to seduce Alexandra, and take pictures. He attempts to bed Anne and keep Alexandra quiet by threatening to report the girl for possession of cocaine. Finally--20 years into their marriage--Alexandra's worm turns. She threatens Bryce with a shotgun and runs off with Willy. Bryce pursues them, taking along a neurotic ex-convict with a pistol and a toothache; and finally, coming upon the lovers beside the highway, he is hit by a truck. "I wanted her to love me," he says, dying.

Alexandra and Willy live happily ever after. The narrator--who at any time during those 20 years could have told Alexandra to hire herself a good, non-Futurist lawyer--fulminates on, unappeased.

These deliberately allusive, de-constructed and unbelievable characters move through a hyper-real countryside. Nova is splendid on the woods, the walks, the fishing. His ghosts give a kind of glow to his landscape; they utterly fail to light up his novel.

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