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Making the Ordinary Beautiful CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner (Random House: $18.95; 277 pp.)

September 06, 1987|Alan Cheuse | Cheuse is the author of "Fall Out of Heaven,"published this month and the novels, "The Grandmother's Club" and "The Bohemians."

Prepare to hear the sound of trumpets! It's the 50th anniversary of Wallace Stegner as a working novelist! That's correct, 50th! His first novel appeared in 1937, and "Crossing to Safety"--let me say it here and now: one of his best--has just been published, giving him a total of 15 works of fiction, as well as nearly another dozen works of nonfiction, at least one of which, "Wolf Willow" (subtitled "A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier"), is fine enough a narrative to make any serious novelist want to put his name to it.

Hear those trumpets? They're going to be playing all season, and deservedly so, and there will be, I trust, retrospectives enough on the depth and breadth of the Stegner life-work (calling the attention of readers who, alas, may have missed out on the pleasures and powerful dramas of novels such as "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "Angle of Repose" and the role of history in the present, and the family, and the forging of Western American culture, and the acute representation of the aging process, of our relation to the land, of theology and humanism in ordinary American life). So I won't go on any further tooting this horn; I'll focus on this current book, which--in a world where at the moment less is too often considered more--recalls to us the old grand highway of novels about youth and age, family and friends, work and poverty and success and failure, sickness and health, loving and cherishing, the value of place and how to live with dis placement, art and life, yes, yes, yes, all these marvelous motifs growing out of the story of a life span of not always easy friendship between two couples who will, by the time you finish the book, become confused, probably, with your own special friends and acquaintances; that's how splendidly crafted this novel is.

Larry Morgan, the septuagenarian writer who tells the story, can take all the credit for that. From the beginning, his felicitous gift for making the ordinary into the beautiful catches our attention, from the odor of the air in the room in northern Vermont into which he wakes in the opening scene ("Standard summer-cottage taint of mice, plus a faint, not-unpleasant remembrance of skunks under the house, but around and through those a keenness as of 7,000 feet. . . .") on through the portraits of academic life in a Midwest college town in the '30s and an upper-middle-class summer retreat in the old woods of Vermont with its road that curves "out of wet ground thick with cedars, and up onto a plateau meadow where Jersey cows, beautiful as deer, watch . . . with Juno eyes. . . . "

That's a little how I felt, watching, bewitched, as the story of Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang unfolded with such ease before me, their love for each other and for life, their defeats and victories in their attempts to make ordinary decent lives in a world born of economic depression and, later, global war. And I watched, read quickly, fascinated with the way in which the novelist's novelist, narrator Larry Morgan, makes the telling of his and his wife's and his friends' life stories the occasion for dealing with the larger issues that seem to have loomed behind most of Stegner's work.

"How do you make a book that anyone will read," Morgan poses the question at an appropriate moment toward the end of the novel, "out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things the novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are the speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?"

None of these things, the elements that make up the materials of novels written by just about everyone we read and praise, appears in Stegner's latest novel (though a touch here and there has shown up in some earlier books)--yet "Crossing to Safety" stands as a triumph because of these absences, not in spite of them. Stegner is a surpassing master at showing victory in the everyday activities of life, and though he admits to the darker places of the human heart, for who couldn't and still remain honest, he depicts a world in which, because of the angle of vision, we see more by sunlight than shadow.

Consider the way in which Larry Morgan describes the prospect before him as he surveys the scene in Vermont where he and his wife Sally have been visiting the Langs for nearly 40 years. "The view from Folsom Hill," he says, "is not grand in the way of Western landscapes. What gives it its charm is the alternation of wild and cultivated rough woods ending with scribed edges against smooth hayfields--this and the accent dots of white houses, red barns, and clustered cattle tiny as aphids on a leaf. Directly below them, across the shaggy top of a lesser hill, is the lake, heart shaped, with the village at its southern end. . . . "

This is a literary landscape, with its "scribed" woods and houses like "accent dots," and a literary landscape of a particular sort. The epic master of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "Angle of Response" ends here on a quiet, Eastern note, as the lyricist of the rational showing us his source, the New England lake, heart shaped.

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