YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An Irregularity in the Life of a Regular Guy : SEAWARD, By Brad Leithauser (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 384 pp.)

June 27, 1993|Susan Heeger | Heeger is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

Early on in Brad Leithauser's masterful new novel, "Seaward," two best friends and fellow lawyers go out to lunch at a favorite restaurant they call the General's. (Its name is actually Captain Wang's, but they like the food so much they have "promoted" the fictional Captain.) The two men, Terry Seward and Adam Mikolajczak, talk about women. They talk about sports. They talk about food ("God this soup is good. How does the General do it?"). They bring up plans for the weekend. What they don't discuss are their personal feelings: Terry's lingering grief for his late wife; Adam's for his ex-wife--subjects very much on Terry's mind.

The reason for their resolute, spunky chitchat is that these two are "beer-drinking, baseball-watching regular guys," as opposed to sensitive, fashionable men who "sniff and blubber and generally carry on about the problems of being male, or about (worse yet) caring and growth ." Regular guys don't confide in each other; they tell stories, they crack jokes. They work hard, they play hard, they navigate life's storms without having to gas about them.

But what happens to a regular guy when something highly irregular occurs? For example, when his drowned wife returns from the dead to visit him in Virginia's Dismal Swamp?

Successful, bright, "on the edge of 40," Terry seems to have lived a pretty charmed life until his wife's death 19 months ago as they vacationed in the Cayman Islands. He grew up in a small Midwestern town, the son of a woman he calls "Mob" and a man he refers to as "Iowa's greatest amateur handyman." He looks back fondly on his youth as a high school pole-vaulting star, his years at Princeton and his ascension through the ranks of a Washington D.C. communications law firm. And though his wife's death has left him "sexually dysfunctional"--a term that would give any regular guy the willies--his law practice keeps him busy jetting around the country, negotiating licenses for TV and radio stations.

When he's home, he's hugely comforted by the bony eccentric who serves as his secretary, and by his friendship with Adam. This chummy, loyal, almost marital bond thrives on regular phone chats, lunches, sports events and work-out sessions.

Then comes the incident that renders Terry's orderly existence not only meaningless but incomprehensible: Having arrived in the Dismal Swamp ahead of his sister and her new boyfriend with whom he's to spend the weekend, he sits in a spooky cabin sipping whiskey. Suddenly his dead wife appears, a vision in white, and greets him with the words, "Terry, Terry, no one's fault."

Poor Terry. Scrambling to follow the apparition outside, he slashes his feet on shards of the whiskey glass he dropped at the sight of her. Fleeing the whole experience, he tries to go back to his life and finds that what's happened doesn't cut it in the world of regular guys. Adam doesn't want to hear about it ("You know what, under these circumstances, is the only cure for you? Going back to work "). His elderly parents fret about his sanity. His annoying sister tries to mother him.

For solace--and support in his quest to figure out what he really saw that night--Terry turns to an unlikely source: Kevin Kopp, his freshman college roommate, an antisocial oddball, the antithesis of regular. As Terry and Squirrely (as he was once known) take to meeting for conversation over greasy food, the story assumes the quality of a detective quest. The answer, if there is an answer, seems to lie either beyond Terry's perceptions of reality (i.e., he's seen a ghost) or beyond his perceptions of himself (he's less regular, a little crazier, than he thought he was).

Pursuing the first possibility, he writes letters of inquiry to psychics. Exploring the second, he has endless, windy talks with Kopp, who acts as a sort of ad hoc psychotherapist. Kopp encourages Terry to delve into matters Adam has no patience for: his not-so-blissful marriage; his late wife's depressions.

Part of what gives shape and form to Terry's free-flowing search, and to the novel, is the telling and retelling of certain stories. Chief among these of course concerns the sighting at the swamp, but there are others--college anecdotes, childhood memories, tales from Terry's marriage--that surface repeatedly among a changing cast of characters.

The implication is that narratives, even small, mundane ones, help people make sense of themselves, of those they love and, in general, of life. From the distance a story provides, it's possible to study behavior and find its meaning. The fact that the meaning as well as the story itself changes with the teller and the telling denies the existence of any objective truth. This is an important realization for Terry, who, as a lawyer, has always put his faith in certainties.

Los Angeles Times Articles