Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth by Brett Laidlaw (W. W. Norton: $15.95. 226 pages)
Father died first. It is an American theme; not just actuarially, with widows booking round-the-world cruises, but as an image of the family. The drifting father, his self-esteem splintered or wrecked by the do-or-die expectations that society traditionally puts on a man, goes abstract and withdrawn. Psychologically, at least, he disappears.
Father-collapse is at the heart of several of our distinguished works of fiction. There is Christina Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children," where the father constructs an increasingly mad kingdom in his increasingly estranged household. There is Susan Minot's "Monkeys," where he retreats into a private world of alcohol. And, in a way, there is Agee's "A Death in the Family," in which the father's death has a hint of abandonment to it.
What links these three works is not so much the paternal disappearance as what happens to the children. A world of golden assurance shrivels when the figure who seemed to guarantee it, even eccentrically, dwindles to mortality or worse. Father departs, turning out the lights.
Some of this darkening can be found in Brett Laidlaw's first novel, "Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth." A professor and would-be poet sinks further into his narcissistic fantasies and, finally realizing his isolation, finds it is too late to come back. His family, bruised with rebuffs but still loving, can save neither him nor itself.
The disintegration of Ulysses Turner Fraser is told over the course of three winter days in Minneapolis. Meteorologically, they are the climax of almost two months in which the temperature never climbs above freezing. Symbolically, they are the congealing of a family's life.
Turner is strange and gets stranger during the three days, narrated in part by Bryce, the younger of his two sons, and in part by the author in a voice that is hardly distinguishable from Bryce's. Both tend to be muddy.
There is a sensibility at work in Laidlaw's book. As we wait for a dreadful winter storm to arrive and for U.T.'s destruction, there is a dismay that the reader will share. But the sensibility is mostly choked by the writing.
U.T. makes his appearance at breakfast, greeting his sons with "Good morning, sweet ladies," an Eliotish echo. You may want to throw a grapefruit at him, and when, explaining his indifference to his wife's birthday, he speaks of "The ineluctable mementos of mortality," you may consider following the grapefruit with the eggs over which he has been "scooping fat."
Defect in Pitch
There is something faintly wrong with that "scooping," just as there is something a little off with the recollection of a younger U.T. sitting on a French terrace and "drinking Medoc." It is a defect in pitch; very slight but enough to arouse something less than complete confidence in the narration.
Confidence is shaken more considerably when Bitsy, U.T.'s wife, restless and balked, attends a showing of Picasso etchings and hears the banal comments of those around her. Her own thoughts are not much better:
"A line came into Bitsy's head: 'In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.' " It's one of T. S. Eliot's chestnuts, but Bitsy reflects: "A touchstone line."
U.T.'s pit stops on the way to destruction include a poetry reading, a theatrically gloomy English lecture--after which he overhears two younger colleagues make fun of him--and an unsatisfactory meeting with a student who reveres him, and whom he vaguely desires.
The reading gives us samples of U.T.'s poems. "I'm hurting for summer, sadly longing / for hazy sunsets, green evenings with gin." And the author's narration is on the same level:
"The audience murmured satisfactorily. U.T. asked for a glass of wine and one was brought to him. He then read several short poems on modern themes, moaning and contorting to make up for what was missing in the lines themselves. The young poets ate it up, believing that they were having a taste of the grand old days when poets were men and true men couldn't help but be poets. . . ."
In its own way, "Three Nights" is a variant of "Death in the Family." But the Fraser family never was alive.