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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Less Keeps One Wanting for a Bit More : ANGEL, ANGEL by April Stevens ; Viking $19.95, 211 pages

March 10, 1995|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Updike's short-story collection "Pigeon Feathers" was my introduction to what I shall call, for the purposes of this review, alienated-WASP fiction. I still recall some of the stories--"A & P" in particular--for Updike's singular ability to make minimalist fiction vital.

Ann Beatty introduced a second generation of understatement, and now we can add April Stevens to the list of those who attempt to prove that less is more. What happens in "Angel Angel," her first novel, can be summed up as follows: Dad falls for another woman and leaves Mom, who has something of a breakdown, which is witnessed by the excessive son, who finds love, and the introspective son, who finds ideas.

There's a big yellow Cadillac convertible and a sweat-shirted priest in the wings, as well as the quintessential wise-beyond-his-years dropout-cum-gardener, but that's about it.

And yet it's almost impossible to stop reading; it's as though Stevens were swinging a big old pocket watch back and forth, back and forth, until the reader, in a hypnotic trance, is powerless to resist.

I found myself coming out of the haze a few hours after finishing the book and wondering whether there was less here than met the eye.

I have the feeling that this is one of those books that depends on the reader's instinctive empathy: Those who find something here will become devout fans immediately. Those who need something to chew on may lose patience.

It's a sad story: Gordie Iris was an artist. His wife, Augusta, the perfect New England wife, was dutiful, restrained, given to denim skirts and forgettable tops, a sensible woman who drove her Honda from errand to errand. They had two sons--Mathew, who from the very start was as distant and cool as his father, and then Henry, who plunged headlong into life and managed to make it into a rather sodden mess before he turned 18.

Mathew was holed up at school, inching toward the end of his thesis, and Henry was at home, watching his high school class graduate without him, when Gordie, who had been talking about leaving for months, up and did. Augusta fell apart and took to her bed; Mathew came home and took to his, waiting for something to happen, and Henry fell in love with Bette Mack, a girl who has life force written all over her.

She is the kind of eccentric who often shows up in bleak, bleached fictional landscapes like this one--blonde, blue-eyed, able to store her banana bubble gum in her cheek like a chipmunk so she can kiss Henry and not have to unwrap a new piece afterward.

She wears bright colors, while the Iris family dresses like shadows. She talks to Augusta and lures her out of her gloom, when the boys, imprisoned by the strength of their mother's despair, can only knock on the door and hope she grants them permission to enter.

Where the Irises falter, Bette rushes in--and when Henry retreats, in a sad imitation of his father's behavior, she does what comes naturally, which is to respond to Mathew's barely banked passion. And then Augusta, roused finally by Bette's contagious vitality, allows herself to respond to a man--and not to respond when Gordie comes limping home.

It is certainly a touching--and intricately woven--story. Stevens' writing does have a lovely rhythm; she knows just where to drop in a pertinent detail, just how to parcel out a character's past so that we learn what we need to learn at the right moment in the story.

Part of the charm of "Angel, Angel" is the curiosity it engenders: Even though she lays in hints, even though the reader can see much of what's coming before it arrives, there are surprises, little ones, that keep the material from sounding stale.

The only lingering frustration is with the questions that flutter at the edges of the book. Gordie has left the family financially comfortable. Is Augusta going to do anything besides hang out with the gardener and eat the meals Mathew cooks? Are we supposed to think Mathew is going to give up school because Bette makes him feel needed--and are we supposed to be as pleased with that notion as he seems to be?

What about Henry, who's in love with the way his and Bette's life is about to change? He's also at sea, despite his spiritual introspection, 18 going on nothing, possessed of an artistic talent that seems to drive him crazy.

I'm not asking for a nonfiction documentary or even a sprawling miniseries in waiting. But Stevens limits herself, in an odd way.

It's clear that she has a commanding ability, that she can write stark, plain prose that rolls along, picking up power like a snowball heading downhill. But there is a difference between simplicity and restraint--and it's hard not to wish that next time out, she will take a few more emotional chances. She can handle a bigger inventory of experiences. I look forward to whatever comes next.

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