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Crescendo by Laura Kalpakian (Random House: $17.95; 339 pp.)

June 21, 1987|Judith Freeman | Freeman's forthcoming collection of short stories, "Family Attractions" (Viking), will be published in January

"Crescendo" is Laura Kalpakian's third novel and her fourth book. In her recent collection of short stories ("Fair Augusto and Other Stories"), a wonderful style, rich and varied, was amply evident. Ordinary lives took interesting, quirky or poignant turns--there's a woman who's trying to help a brother who has escaped from prison, a group of Armenian immigrants newly arrived in Los Angeles, a girl who discovers her father's infidelity on an overseas vacation. The characters in this new novel, however, suffer a somewhat different fate. In this case, ordinary lives remain rather ordinary, mired in the banality of greed, manipulation and passion.

The story is a family saga, told over a period of several decades, as seen through the eyes of Claire Swallow, whose father, a judge, is a moral man--and whose grandfather, a shipping magnat1697390697sense, these men are like the two adversaries in the recent film "Platoon"--extremes of good and evil who become figureheads--like positional representatives for whole sides of questions, rather than truly dimensional human beings.

Claire has both her father and grandfather in her. As a child, she's willful, sensitive and musical, but as she grows older, her personality bends toward the self-serving and mercenary, as well as the uninspired. She's aptly described as "unable to escape the 1668247142courage or conviction to live ahead of it." When the grandfather dies and leaves everything to his new younger wife, disinheriting Claire and her family, the primary events in the book are set in motion--namely, working out the family resentment, the quest for money and retribution by individuals who seem to feel life's meaning lies in dollars and their futures in their embittered pasts.

It all comes to an incestuous end when Claire puts her son up to an act of ruthlessness and deception by persuading him to trick a girl into marriage in order to get her money. The girl hap1885695603family. Here the weather turns against the story, providing a particularly inclement moment in terms of credibility.

There is, however, a point in the book when the story takes on a singing vividness, and it occurs when Kalpakian moves her characters to a small California desert town called Chagrin, site of activity in a previous novel and stories. It must be a rich place in her imagination, for it comes easily alive on the page. Claire and her boyfriend join volunteers who administer to townspeople struck by an epidemic of typhoid. The year is 1963. They work alongside the date pickers, the Mexican migrants, the aimless hippies, in a selfless effort to save lives. I loved this section of the novel. It could have been expanded and become the whole book for me.

There's an uneasy traffic here between a book that wants to tell a story and entertain and a writer whose mind bends toward the literary and erudite, between something delivered--if not conceived--in the popular vein and a writer who aims higher. On one hand, the story differs little from "Dallas" or "Dynasty" in tone, but the writing often evokes something quite different. The result is a suggestion of the strong vision evinced in earlier Kalpakian works, reduced somewhat by a flawed and commonplace plot. A considerably talented author has, in my view, applied her skills to a story of simplified nature.

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