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Floating Along With a Hero Too Distant to Care About : A SURVEY OF THE ATLANTIC BEACHES by Don Hendrie Jr. (Crown: $13.95; 211 pp.)

January 17, 1988|Bret Lott and Lott is the author of "The Man Who Owned Vermont" (Viking). and

Devereux Hoopes, the aging ex-hippie hero of Don Hendrie's fourth novel, is as detached and aloof as is the title of this book. The story of a summer road trip down the Eastern Seaboard, "A Survey" purports to show us how Hoopes--aided by his jadedly innocent teen-age son Carl and the literary friends the two stay with along the way--becomes less the cool, objective surveyor of the lives of other people, and more the participant in his own life.

Tessa Dixon, Hoopes' betrothed, describes him as "a guy too much in the present tense . . . a floater." Hoopes' trip, made against Tessa's wishes, is a series of short stay-overs with famous friends, and at each stop is another in a series of sexual near-encounters.

First is the ex-sister-in-law he finds in bed with him his first morning in Massachusetts. A few days later is the midnight appearance of Miriam Shore in Hoopes' bedroom in the inn at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Naked Miriam, lover to Famous Journalist Willy Liebling, gives Hoopes a "solid, basilrich kiss," and says, "Thank you, Mr. Hoopes, you are as always . . . a rock. Aren't you?"

A rock indeed. In the face of repeated temptations, the stalwart, stoic Hoopes remains ever the celibate, ever true to his fiance back home in Tuscaloosa, a woman about whom we know nothing other than that Tessa and Dev are having problems.

But once Hoopes finally makes it back to Alabama, Tessa is gone, vanished to yet another Atlantic beach, St. Augustine, where Dev and Carl head in hot pursuit, only to find that she's left there for yet another beach, this time the exotic jungle of Cumberland Island, Ga.

With such locales, such inherent movement, and such strange and colorful characters, one might assume that "A Survey" would be more engaging than it actually is. Certainly we want to find out what's with Tessa and Dev, but once the two reunite, and this is what we've been reading the novel for all along, there is no spark, no tension, no actual fight and fire that might break the cool Hoopes and force him into some significant action. Instead, the two alone on a Cumberland beach, Tessa says to Dev: "This is more than a diddley romance you and I have. If you don't trust me, I think I'll sign up for the goddamn nunnery in Plaquemine." Then, "Marry me, you dope."

So, it's finally revealed, Dev doesn't want to commit to marriage. But by this time we already know that Hoopes' biggest problem is his life as aloof surveyor. There's no surprise here.

Hendrie does, in places, capture the beauty of the Atlantic Seaboard, but his writing style seems to want to jump-start Hoopes, the quirky, self-conscious language overblown, the imagery a forced obliqueness: "He begged his brain to fill with a spectacular language that would rend the heavens, or at least blow apart this vast igloo of heat under which they hiked. Either he was stricken to a sunstruck vacuum . . . or guilt coated his brainpan like a thin layer of green facial mud."

Above all, the problem here is that Hoopes, no matter how prodded on by family, friends, and even Hendrie himself, is never more than the floater Tessa calls him. Though their reconciliation--the calm, systematic love the two make in the oppressive heat of Cumberland Island--hints at Dev's progress toward commitment, still his indifferent nature overwhelms the book, until the reader is left wondering why the fate of this distant observer ought to matter.

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