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Desire Provoked by Tracy Daugherty (Random House: $15.95; 245 pp.)

March 08, 1987|Roger D. Friedman | Friedman is a free-lance writer and critic

Cartographer Sam Adams delights in naming things, his children as much as a forest or river on a new map. He begins each new map from a center point of view, easier for him than most since he grew up in the geographic center of the United States, "Red Cloud, Nebraska, forty degrees latitude." Family, relationships, work all neatly fit on Adams' personal map, where he finds himself at center, the point where things make sense. Location means order for Adams, maps are reason. Sketching farm roads and freeways, he remembers, always helped calm him down.

Adams' wife Pamela doesn't locate herself so easily on a map, although it is no doubt one of their problems that he thinks of her in the lexicon of cartography: "Often she refers to the topography of her body, the scale of her emotions, the basin of depression Adams has left her in." Frustrated, seemingly arbitrary, Pam scoops up their two children, Deirdre and Toby (the first, Alan, died three days after birth--"He was premature, small as a shoe," Adams recalls), and moves out.

Suddenly Adams is no longer at center. Everything around him is new, unnamed and hard to define. His sense of dislocation is palpable: His boss pressures him to falsify county maps to the personal advantage of the boss himself; at home, Adams receives several portentous visits from a mysterious stranger who stands in the backyard cloaked in darkness. His lover spouts est; his son throws lighted matches at Pam, and a punk drummer threatens to replace him in his after-hours jazz combo. Adams longs for an international assignment to take him away from his confused life.

Pamela reaches out ambivalently in the aftermath of walking out, trying on new lives and casting them aside. She dabbles in holography, women's counseling, vegetarian cooking and performance art. She babbles art theory and philosophy and surprises the children with bizarre, inexplicable behavior--such as 3 a.m. fire drills--which may indicate a breakdown. By no means is Pamela's journey meant to be taken as parody. Here is a truly sad, moving story. When at last she volunteers for preventive breast cancer surgery (there is a family history), we get the sense that perhaps by allowing herself to be cut open, Pam will lay bare the secret of her agony.

When his international assignment arrives, Adams is catapulted from stasis to astonishingly extreme environment. For six months, he is sent to make maps of glacial and forbidding Svalbard, an island off Greenland, where he will struggle with Russian and take a new lover. The voyage by freighter is a tense Conradian allegory and a welcome change of scene from the claustrophobia of Midwest domesticity. Daugherty does his character a service by plucking him out of predictable circumstances and quite nearly burying him alive in the frozen tundra. Adams, huddled against the elements in the hollowed carcass of his dead horse, finally has to confront the reason by which he lives his life and resolves to plot a new course.

Daugherty writes like someone well beyond his years, wisely remaining nonjudgmental. This Adams family is one adrift and searching for some kind of inarticulated fulfillment. The adults bump into each other like helpless billiard balls; the children are surly, disruptive manifestations of their parents' uncertainty. The scenes between father and children work because of Adams' virtual impotence in the situation. Children demand answers, explanations. Adams has none.

"Desire Provoked" (a terrible, misleading title--this is no romance novel) has its flaws; most annoying, the author's constant name-dropping of philosophers and artists including Klee, Wittgenstein, Saussure, Hegel and Balzac. A novel of ideas succeeds if those ideas are permitted to surface spontaneously through characterization: Here they are nothing more than rolling pins held high behind the author's back. Several plot points are left unresolved, as well: What is the meaning of the seances, the fortune-telling, the cemetery across the street, the corruption of Adams' boss? Maybe Hegel knows.

There are also enough cartographic metaphors, signs and symbols to please Rand McNally, and one is tempted to get carried away with them. The trope, repeated often, of the need to define relationships by "mapping" them is best left to one seismologist who says, "We fight and sign treaties as if nothing's going to change, but in a geologically active world, what does territoriality mean?"

Despite these complaints, Daugherty still provokes some not easily forgotten emotions--which is more than can be said of some other celebrated novelists of his generation. Luckily, what we'll remember from this first novel is not the posturing, but the honest conflicts of a struggling couple.

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