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Surviving Her Love : ALMOST PERFECT, By Alice Adams (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 244 pp.)

July 11, 1993|Josephine Humphreys | Humphreys' most recent novel is "The Fireman's Fair."

From the beginning--no, from before the beginning: from the title page--Alice Adams' eighth novel, "Almost Perfect," is radically ironic. The San Andreas fault is nothing compared to the fissure between reality and perception in the California world of Stella Blake and Richard Fallon, journalist and commercial artist, lovers.

Stella thinks Richard is almost perfect: handsome, charming, gifted if somewhat vain. She's been lonely enough for long enough to overlook a few shortcomings. But the truth is, Richard is not almost perfect, or even minimally acceptable. Richard is a rat.

This is a man whose private terms for other people include broad, whore, bitch, pansy, Kraut, Chink, retard. He's lying, cruel, unfaithful, resentful of Stella's success as a writer; drawn to gay men while hating and fearing them; and deeply misogynistic. Does he love Stella? Well, he loves the way she says his name, "as though the word were golden. Full of love, too full, and she says his name a little too often, Richard feels--or sometimes feels; often he loves his name in Stella's mouth. He often loves Stella. (And sometimes he hates her. Jesus, the blackness! he could hit her. Kill.)"

Stella finds him "loving and warm, and kind and laughing, strong and passionately in love with her."

Irony is hard, especially when sustained over the length of a novel. It works in "Almost Perfect" because the narrative is carefully controlled, told in the third person but from the changing points of view of Stella, Richard and friends. So Stella isn't privy to Richard's thoughts. Her attraction to him is irrational and deluded, but credible, well within the range of that "complexity of human affections" that has been Alice Adams' province during a distinguished writing career. For this harrowing exploration of the pathologies of the heart, a love story that questions the very nature of love, irony is fitting.

Its embrace extends beyond Richard to the whole of San Francisco, where beauty masks a variety of defects from the superficial to the lethal. Happiness here depends primarily on furniture, secondarily on cut flowers. Art is advertising, literature is magazines. Drifting into Richard's world, Stella learns to value surfaces: her looks, her clothes, her apartment. Her interest in the homeless and the disenfranchised is only for their potential as material for slick magazine articles. "Her head is so full of plans; she is dizzy with her own words. She will write more and more and be more and more successful. . . . She can almost believe that she deserves a man as radiant as Richard is." All the while, bigger dangers creep closer to her circle of acquaintances: alcoholism, drug addiction, AIDS, brutality, suicide--and, most threatening, the peril of moral emptiness embodied in the man she loves.

Richard barely misses being monstrous only because he does possess a tiny amount of private honesty. On occasion, he can see into his own vacancy, and that ability seems to be his only redeeming feature. Stella is a much healthier soul, with an enduring sense of self that might save her if she can hang on to it--if she can outlast love. Even though she suffers bouts of insecurity, feeling dowdy and "foreign-looking" (because her mother was Mexican!), and in spite of her unlucky experiences with men , she is tough.

Gradually she suspects that love is something like a disease. "Is love the true meaning of this illness that she experiences? This sick derangement, this inability to eat or sleep?" At one point, having temporarily broken with Richard, she confides in her friend Justine: "It's lucky we weren't together much longer. The addiction or whatever it was could have got worse." But recognition is no cure. She goes back to him; she forgets her own diagnosis, and the addiction does get worse.

Adams gives her characters language that suits them, loaded with adverbs. Some, like always, fairly and somewhat, have the force of undermining direct apprehension of reality. It's a vocabulary that backs away from the long hard look. Other adverbs, supposedly intensive (like quite, terrifically, incredibly ) are used so often that they subvert themselves, yielding only a hollow echo. In the mouths of supposedly literate characters, many of them writers of some sort, this weakened language is one more sign of deficiency.

Friendship, or almost friendship, figures prominently in Stella's life--necessarily, since love is disastrous, families nonexistent and community connections limited to the voyeuristic. She depends a great deal on Justine, who is rational and generous. Another friend, Margot, is a gossipy, mean-spirited harridan. In fact, Margot performs the only heroic, unselfish deed in the novel, though her motives are initially selfish. Nevertheless, friendship proves inadequate as protection against the ravages of love.

"Almost Perfect" is an unflinching novel, the work of a wise and uncompromising mind. It resists easy resolutions, offers neither redemption nor revelation but leaves open the possibility of both at some point in the future. "There is just so much that I have to learn," one character says in a moment of truth. Alice Adams suggests that such moments may be rare, but they do come, and they are worth waiting for.

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