The Lay of the Land by Dean Crawford (Viking: $15.95)
Jeremy Morgan's profession is "brother"; a full-time job as demanding as medicine, law or manufacturing. Brotherhood defines him, giving him a mission and an identity, supplying all the material for this novel. If being a brother doesn't seem quite enough to provide plot, character and setting for a whole book, you haven't yet met Leslie Morgan, Jeremy's sister, older than he by six years. Eccentric Leslie, wounded veteran of two failed marriages and several unfortunate love affairs, mother of 11-year-old Barbara and 6-year-old Matt, is both lodestar and lodestone for the narrator of this transcontinental odyssey of passionate sibling attachment.
At first, when Jeremy tells us straight off that "there was no quibbling between us in our shared knowledge that in some dark, deep-seeded way we'd each have liked to burn down the bed with our natural, unnatural lust," we seem to be in for a steamy tale of incest, but the lust is never overtly expressed, and "The Lay of the Land" remains curiously chaste. Convinced that a single hug or offhand peck on the cheek would lead to perdition, Jeremy and Leslie avoid even the most casual physical contact. For them, even a handshake is fraught with peril. "In our precognizant lobes we thought we were twins . . . staggered six years in our respective earthly births."
They're tuned to each other on a special psychic wavelength, as actual twins are said to be, sensing one another's illness or injury, arriving at identical decisions through different routes. Neither marriage nor geography has reduced the intensity of their connection one iota.
As the novel begins, both Jeremy's and Leslie's marriages are over. Jeremy is on his way from Georgia to California to begin graduate studies in English at Stanford, driving cross-country in a stifling Dodge van with poor shocks and only his overheated imagination for company. Leslie is making exactly the same trip in a VW bus, crowded with her two children, household effects, a pair of cats, a couple of turtles archly called Hortense and Calisher, and the volatile Irish setter Blazes Boylan. (By their pets' names ye shall know them.) This quintessential American journey provides ample opportunity for Jeremy to relive his life, tracing the patters he and his sister have followed; Jeremy always six steps behind. By examining the past, he hopes to find some clue to the future. The plan is for brother, sister, nephew, niece and pets to rendezvous at the family's old house in Berkeley; the last place either of them remembers with anything like pleasure.
During the 1950s, the Morgan family was as close to the American model as they'd ever get. Dad, known as Fog, was working for Merrill Lynch in San Francisco; Mother, called Sunshine, was alternately threatening her husband with suicide and divorce. Sunshine and Fog--given those names, a plot summary would be thoroughly superfluous. These bittersweet recollections take us as far as Chicago in Jeremy's van. Between Chicago and Omaha, we move on to the next decade, during which Leslie begins to demonstrate her spirit and willfulness in earnest, though her behavior is really no more outlandish than anyone else's in that era.
In Omaha, Jeremy phones one of Leslie's old lovers, once a hippie farmer, now an FBI man; hoping that Leslie would have stopped there too, but this time he's out of luck. Though the telepathy has failed, Jeremy gets a badly needed hot shower and is then coerced into accompanying his host to a singles bar, a scene clearly meant to be broadly satiric. Here we are smack dab in the heartland, and Aaron is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and painters' pants, trying to pick up girls in a saloon decorated with fishnets and buoys. Appalled, our narrator bolts, determined to be in Wyoming before morning.
Another Old Flame
Driving west from Omaha, we hear at length about another of Leslie's old flames, Pete Pardieu, a thoroughly unsuitable person she'd taken up with during her Connecticut high school days. Since by then he was old enough for girlfriends of his own, Jeremy achieved a matching misalliance with Pete's sister Lucy, an affair that began as a way to share his sister's life but turned out to have some unexpected fringe benefits. In the course of these reminiscences we get a comprehensive and unflattering picture of a tony Connecticut suburb, an enclave of bias apparently quite untouched by the radical changes then sweeping the land. After her disastrous affair with Pete, Leslie Morgan eloped with Hank Jakes, a marriage that ends abruptly before we've seen much of him.
We learn a lot about Leslie by indirection, but far less about our narrator's relationship with his wife Sara, an oversight generously remedied by the time the Grand Tetons loom into view. Thereafter, the pace of the novel picks up slightly so that the end will coincide with the separate arrivals of Leslie and Jeremy in California. That encounter takes place exactly as scheduled. Brother and sister settle down in separate households, their mutual passion still firmly in check. As adults, they seem reasonably well able to cope.