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Settling for Contentment : EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE, By Paul Gervais (HarperCollins: $19.95; 224 pp.)

December 29, 1991|Susan Heeger | Heeger is a Los Angeles writer

To say that "Extraordinary People" is structured as a series of linked stories gives no clue to its panoramic scope or to the implied eventfulness of its ellipses. Paul Gervais' chosen narrative form has the effect of a strong light shining here and there around a dusty, memory-filled attic; the light pauses on certain objects, but not to the total exclusion of others. Every moment includes an awareness of the whole--all the individual, cherished things and the events surrounding them that make up a life.

By the time we meet Meg, the irrepressible matriarch of the Beeler clan, she's already a little crumpled around the edges. She's still got enough pizazz to leave her stuffy husband home working while she takes her sons on a madcap tour of New York before school starts. She's still pretty enough to command a four-room hotel suite for the price of a room, and to catch the eye of a vacationing Rotarian, Mr. Law.

But her gaiety and polish dissolve at the bottom of her Manhattan glass, and she's soon bemoaning her life and bad-mouthing her husband in front of his boys. In fact, there's not much she doesn't say or do around the kids, short of falling into bed with Mr. Law. This she waits to do until the kids are parked in their suite in front of the television.

When she returns, teary-eyed, before dawn, she's just in time to grab the youngest from the window ledge--where he's crawled to retrieve a paper airplane--and cover him with very passionate, unmotherly kisses.

Such is life for the two Beeler sons, Cliff and Sam, of Paul Gervais' knockout first novel. Deprived of their childhood by histrionic, seductive Meg, who hogs all the fanfare for herself, they are perpetual outsiders who have to struggle to survive, to escape and eventually to find a place for themselves.

Theirs is the house where drunken fights erupt at all hours, where no two chairs in the living room face each other for conversation, where every meal is eaten in front of the TV, to the mumble of Walter Cronkite "coughing his way through the news."

Each family member yearns to escape this love-starved jail. When Gerald, the father, who rejects his sons early for being "Mama's boys," also turns away from his restless wife, he buries himself in the sports pages and in the shabby world of his small liquor store, where the beer's always neatly stacked and every stumbling customer gets a courteous "Thank you, call again."

Meg, when she's not drowning in whiskey, lives for the heightened thrill of vacations--of three weeks a year in Florida or New Hampshire, where she can lie in the sun and giggle with friends and pretend to be, once again, the young dazzler that boys ogled and girls thought was such a scream.

Not surprisingly, Sam, the main character, who identifies more with his father, tends to retreat into himself, studies hard and eventually goes to live in Italy. Cliff, 16 months older, opts for high drama like his mother. He loves movie magazines and weepy Connie Francis songs. Alone in the house, he dons his mother's robes or a skimpy loincloth and goes leaping through rooms, or he snuffs the lights and peeps at a handsome, naked next-door neighbor. When an older man molests Cliff, he makes a drama out of that, too, leaking the facts and milking the event for attention--even negative attention.

Though the relationship between Cliff and Sam is rarely more than that of two soldiers fighting the same war with different weapons, Sam understands Cliff's hunger to be noticed--a desire so strong that it will settle for revulsion. Which makes it all the more gratifying that both Cliff and Sam end up in relationships with men who truly do love them. And though Cliff never quite realizes his own good fortune, Sam does, in the novel's moving, transcendent finish.

While Sam narrates all but one of the sections (one is told obliquely, from Meg's point of view), the dialogue captures a chorus of distinctive voices. The most memorable is probably Meg's, which, in the course of the book, changes markedly, reflecting her disintegration. From the wisecracking, Betty Grable-style blond who peppers her talk with "You bet your boots!" and "Are you kidding?" she descends into bitchiness and eventually the confused decrepitude that leads her to ask again and again, "What's that noise?" "Where did you go?" "When am I leaving?" when she visits the grown-up Sam in Florence.

Throughout the novel, Gervais' evocative language brings a wide range of physical settings alive--from the wintry streets of Lowell, Mass., "lined with mounds of old snow, black at the edges like burnt cookies," to a Florentine raspberry patch and a scarab beetle that "takes to the air heavy as a cargo helicopter."

But most potent of all is Sam's quiet, sometimes stumbling progress through his own life, a march that is intermittently charged with insight. He sees his once-powerful parents still able to control him in their dotage, yet utterly dependent on his kindness. He sees his colorful, flamboyant brother settling for the dull safety of a bank job and the bitter legacy of Meg's resentments. He loses people he discovers he loves.

In the wake of Cliff's death, Sam begins to realize what is possible after you give up the struggle between what is and what should be. While the result is a less extraordinary life than his mother burned for, it is enough for contentment, and contentment, he finds, is enough.

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