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BOOK REVIEW : A Paler Shade of 'Bright Lights, Big City' : EVERYTHING LOOKS IMPRESSIVE by Hugh Kennedy ; Doubleday; $23, 260 pages


The single greatest appeal of coming-of-age novels surely must be the fact that nobody forgets the loss of innocence.

Those first encounters with adult pain and pleasure--love affairs commenced and shattered, convictions honed and compromised, careers formulated and abandoned--always carry special meaning, and it's a rare person who doesn't feel a double-edged nostalgia for adolescence. Hope ran wildly then, unfettered by experience, and while one's younger self may seem impossibly witless in retrospect, it cannot help but retain the charm inherent in naivete.

Hugh Kennedy places his coming-of-age novel, "Everything Looks Impressive," in one of the more traditional settings for such a work--an Ivy League college, specifically Yale.

And it begins conventionally, too, with Kennedy's narrator, Alex MacDonald, instantaneously developing a crush on an older woman, Jill Lanigan, whom he pursues ineffectually through much of the book.

What makes "Everything Looks Impressive" different from many of its novelistic forebears is that Jill is a Yale senior and leading feminist of ambiguous sexuality, not a townie or a non-Ivy student or some other fill-in-the-blank bimbo that the author, in older books of this kind, has felt free to patronize.

Jill, it seems, is destined to teach Alex a thing or two about prejudice and power and perhaps even to force him to come to terms with his own preconceptions.

That, at least, is the early direction of "Everything Looks Impressive," as Alex gradually learns that Jill is indeed a Big Woman On Campus and serious practitioner of sexual politics. She blows off baiting jocks with wit and ease, seems to know everyone at late-night parties, takes recreational drugs with the best of them, greets at least one professor as if she were a long-lost friend.

But for all that campus success, Jill nonetheless takes an interest in a bewildered freshman, namely Alex, who can't even get across campus without getting lost.

The tenor of the novel changes at the end of Part I, however, when Jill turns up in the infirmary with a mild concussion. The previous weekend she had crashed an off-campus social given by a members of the football team and gotten into a fight after some of the jocks began slinging homosexual slurs.

Somehow involved in the melee was one of Alex's suite-mates--the rich, spoiled Brook, who claims to have entered the fray on Jill's side. Alex doesn't quite believe him, though, partly because of Brook's manner and partly because--the reader can't help but feel--Brook went to Andover; although Alex graduated from a minor prep school, he is wary of the numerous Yale students with much more privileged educational backgrounds.

Kennedy has thus set the stage for the moment at which Alex will have to choose between Jill, whom he admires but probably can't have, and Brook, whom he envies and resents but also learns to like.

That "Everything Looks Impressive" doesn't play out as described above is the result, one suspects, of Kennedy's having recognized the formulaic nature of this triangle. In avoiding the expected resolution of the plot, however, Kennedy does himself no favors, for he hasn't found a better way to bring the conflict to a head.

Something dramatic happens toward the end of Part II--I won't say exactly what--but it seems an act of authorial desperation, Raymond Chandler--or was it Hammett?--shooting off a gun when the plot seems to be going nowhere. The clash of sexual cultures at this point should increase but in fact just peters out, Alex continuing to flounder through his attempts to figure Jill out.

The publisher of "Everything Looks Impressive" would like us to believe the novel is "Bright Lights, Big City" for the '90s. Kennedy's concern with gay/straight and middle-/upper-class conflict is certainly on target, but his narrative is too diffuse to be effective; Kennedy is unable to resist the temptation to chronicle innumerable neat college things--drinking at Mory's, for example, the famous Yale club--however irrelevant to his plot or theme.

Jay McInerney's novel worked because he wrote superficially, and consciously so, about a superficial world he knew well: Kennedy's does not because his descriptions of worlds other than his own--the gay scene, the old-wealth scene--smell of observation rather than experience.

Alex, gayly made up, at one point accompanies Jill to a gender-bender ball, but his experience of the gay world goes no further; Alex is mistaken for a homosexual by a group of jocks upon leaving the party, but Kennedy doesn't make the scene pay off by forcing Alex to understand some of the difficulties of being gay--by having him beaten up, for instance.

Kennedy, tackling a more problematic subject than McInerney, ends up achieving less, his writing strategy being indifferently matched to his subject.

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