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Expensive Habits by Maureen Howard (Summit: $17.95; 298 pp.)

May 18, 1986| Nora Johnson | Johnson's most recent novel is "Tender Offer" (Simon & Schuster). and

Maureen Howard's fine fifth novel attempts more, and accomplishes more, than all the others, marking her steady progress toward the highest rank of American fiction writers. The prose of "Expensive Habits" is dense, complex, disturbing, authoritative. Its several voices suit her story and vividly demonstrate her literary intelligence. It's dazzling to see how deftly she wields her author's tools. Point of view, constricting for some writers, becomes in her ken a group of handy launching pads for better views of the territory; and as for the knotty business of time, she slides gracefully from now to then to tomorrow without a sign of discomfort.

The story, set in Manhattan, is--I believe--about death; how Margaret Flood, a famous American writer who has usually managed to be around the action of the decades, avoids a medical death sentence by a successful bypass operation, only to be "faked out by death: It found her" in a shocking climax I won't reveal.

To "set the record straight," she tells of her first husband, Jack Flood, who deceived her with a nurse, and her real love--I think--Pinky Strong, frail tag end of an old WASP family. Pinky, deeply involved, like Margaret, in '60s causes, is the presumed father of her son, Bayard. There's Sol Negaly, her Hollywood director, and her "fashionable and fussy" editor, Fred Peach, who signs her up for a sizzling expose of the Old Left. There was the early novel about her family she rewrote to suit her fascinating first editor, Philo Pierce, and the one written to avenge herself on Jack Flood, now a prominent New York cardiologist, in which she claimed he'd cooked the evidence in the crucial paper that got him his first grant.

Now divorced--Margaret an invalid, Pinky an alcoholic, running a thrift shop winningly called "Golden Oldies"--the couple are brought back together by a remarkably drawn maid named Lourdes and the 17-year-old Bayard, parent of his two helpless parents, in a curious set of circumstances that ends in tragedy.

I've tripped over some of this because, after one careful reading, I'm not sure of some of the events and motivations in this novel. Though the story is carefully crafted and well-paced, Howard has a way of setting down a brilliant dab of description--"Margaret Flood's editor--very neat, sewn out of mousy flannel; like a toy, muzzle and whiskers atremble, adorable soft belly . . ." and then leaving it, an unexamined treasure, to sit alone. The characters are tantalizingly presented but often in shadow, rarely emerging into the light where we can watch them engage in real action. Important motivations are sometimes hard to find; I kept going back rather fretfully, wondering if I'd missed something. Was there more significance than I thought to Jack Flood's Chinese pen pal, or to the shopping trip of Tina (Sol Negaly's outrageous wife) to Golden Oldies? Howard ducks and runs at important dramatic junctures--a tendency she's had in her other books too. She'll line up, flex her muscles, salute . . . and then walk off the field.

Margaret is tough and feisty, but puzzling. Is she the cruel caricature of a writer, putting everybody but herself under her camera eye, or is she a loving and lovable female? I didn't know why she so resented her son's sexuality, or why, in the last section, she and Pinky returned to clean out and sell the Vermont house where they lived in the '60s. And did the author intend the fascinating but veiled suggestion that Margaret's work was molded, distorted, even battered by the opinions of men until the moment when she gave Peach back his check and resolved to write her book the way she wanted? Is that what the novel is really about? I wish I knew.

These are hard times for fiction. Serious novelists strive to avoid the shopworn--which by now includes just about everything--by angling in on their material, barely touching those pressure points where lesser writers would land with a thud. Better to circle, to infer, to let the explosion take place underground, going for the greater wallop the reader gets from making his own discovery. Then style, having a heavier role, becomes visible. The brilliant Byzantine curlicues of a William H. Gass or a Maureen Howard are always a pleasure to read, but sometimes too ripely self-conscious; the packaging tends to outshine the contents.

Howard is so good, so talented, I want her to be perfect.

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