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FICTION

December 23, 1990|Michael Harris

DOG DAYS by Mavis Cheek (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 221 pp.) . In the battle of the sexes, Mavis Cheek fights fair. No thumbs in her male characters' eyes, no ideological lead weights in her gloves; just a stinging jab in the face of fatuity and a quick hook to the funny bone.

Attitude counts, because "Dog Days," reduced to a plot outline, is nothing more than a generic feminist novel with a romantic ending tacked on--a novel, moreover, that depends on the flimsiest of contrivances: an apparently married man who turns out, in the nick of time, to be single and available.

But a novel isn't just a plot outline, as Cheek ("Parlor Games") artfully demonstrates. The voice of her heroine, Pat Murray, manages to be feisty, breezy, vulnerable and wise all at once. We listen to Pat describe her self-absorbed opera-singer husband, Gordon; her 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, who wants a dog "if I can't have Daddy"; her liberated women friends, who prod her to divorce Gordon but then can't bear the idea of her living alone--not to mention the semi-comatose mutt she picks up at the pound for Rachel--and we accept the validity of her judgments even as we chuckle.

"Dog Days" has two morals. One is no longer trendy in this era of resurgent "family values": Having a child is no excuse to prolong an unhappy marriage. The other is downright old-fashioned: Life without love--and risk--is a dog's life. Novels need morals, just as fighters need to work out on the heavy bag. But the fun is in the rope-skipping and shadow-boxing: the witty take-offs on London middle-class existence, the back-fence spats, the office politics, the warm portraits of daughter and friends, the coy maneuvering at dinner parties that (contrary to stereotypes about the English) serve up raunchy talk and appetizing food. May the bell ring soon for Cheek's next round.

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