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Ghosts in the Neighborhood : GOING NATIVE, By Stephen Wright (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22; 305 pp.)

January 30, 1994|RICHARD EDER

Wylie Jones gets home from work, late and tense, to join his wife, Rho, and another couple, Tom and Gerri, for a garden cookout. They eat perfect steaks, drink Daiquiris and engage in a little cross-marital flirtation and a good deal of cross-marital fantasizing. At some point Wylie goes back into the house and out the front door, hot-wires a neighbor's beat-up Ford Galaxie, drives across America and never comes back.

It could have been an Updike setting, with its sexy suburban folkways and its intermittent creaks of metaphysical Angst and insight. Wylie's fugue, we may think, will be another Rabbit's. But Stephen Wright, the author of "Going Native," is at least one generation this side of Updike. His literary-moral compass points are not Tillich, Camus and Melville but Thomas Pynchon, the Fox Network and the increasingly surreal quality of the day's headlines.

This month's billy-club assault on figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan could almost have been one of the book's episodes. Like any seriously gifted writing, "Going Native" is partly prophecy. When Wylie reports seeing a dead stick-up man at the store where he'd gone to get charcoal, Gerri exclaims that she's sick and tired of hearing and reading about dead people: "They're on television every hour, in the papers every morning, and bleeding all over me in every magazine. Today you'd think that was all life was about, dead people."

Wright's novel is, in a way, a book of the dead or, more nearly, a book of characters who seem to be all life and flesh and turn out to be ghosts. We assume at the start, for example, that we will hear more about Rho, who is no mere suburban wife cliche, but a spiky, fierce figure with touching passions and confusions. Yet once Wylie is out the door, we never do.

Each of the following six episodes, taking place successively at the house of the Galaxie-owning neighbor, on a highway in the Midwest and in various settings stretching across the country to Los Angeles, musters its own cast of characters, some vivid and others more shadowy. There is no connection among them, which would not be remarkable if we had a protagonist in flight to do the connecting; a rabbit, for instance.

Wylie is no rabbit; he is the Road Runner, with the fugitive, polymorphous, infinitely bendable form of the cartoon. His initial name--he keeps changing it--dangles a clue and sometimes he picks up its allusion to the Road Runner's antagonist by calling himself Lee Coyote. The Tom and Gerri of the cookout are of course another cartoon reference. One mark of Wright's adeptness is that we are not immediately conscious of this; his American gardens are so real that only very gradually is it evident that they have turned their tigers into line drawings.

Two things give "Going Native" remarkable distinction in the crowded fictional field of post-modern American nightmare. One is the caliber of the writing. Several of the episodes are so well-told that we would happily settle for them as short stories, quite apart from the design that links them. As for the design, it becomes evident in the fact that each episode is written as a different genre. If the first is neo-Updike, another is noir suspense; still another is a surreal dream depiction of a pornography session in the style of Robert Coover; a fourth is a richly detailed account of a Hollywood couple starting out as tourists in the Borneo jungles and ending up in a savagely ironic heart of darkness.

This disconnection of styles as well as stories points, once more, to the nature of the figure who moves through them all. We notice immediately how peripherally he usually appears. The second episode tells of a two-day crack binge at the house of Wylie's neighbor, owner of a CD store. He had bought the store with the proceeds of an insurance settlement after his baby son was killed by another neighbor's dog. ("Every customer who left the store with a CD in his or her hand was carrying a little piece of Benny.") Wylie is present only as the empty space in the driveway where the Galaxie is usually parked.

In an episode about a murderous hitchhiker with a knife and a knapsack full of college texts, Wylie turns up in his Galaxie as one of the hitchhiker's rides. He is trying on roles. He announces that he is a professional criminal who has been released early from prison despite a murder conviction, but he doesn't have the lingo right. "I was renowned for my good behavior," he tells his dumbfounded companion who, out-weirded, gets out as soon as he can.

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