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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Feeling Doomed, Idealist Watches the Parade Pass Him By : LOST IN PLACE: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, By Mark Salzman ; Random House; $22, 269 pages

October 02, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Woody Allen's film "Take the Money and Run," a spoof of crime documentaries, the hero's maladjustment is "explained" by a series of flashbacks. One shows him playing cello in his high school marching band. He drags a folding chair with him, sits, scrapes a few bars of music, picks up the chair and runs ahead to repeat the process, forever falling behind the parade.

Mark Salzman's youth in Ridgefield, Conn., according to this deadpan, often very funny memoir, was marked by similar stops and starts, though his destination, fortunately, wasn't the slammer but Yale.

Salzman, now of Los Angeles, is the author of two novels, "The Laughing Sutra" and "The Soloist," and a previous memoir, "Iron & Silk," about his early adult years teaching English and studying martial arts in China. In the world's estimation, at least, he is a success. But as a nerdish, undersized kid in the 1970s, he felt doomed to watch the parade pass him by.

"When I was 13 years old," he begins, "I saw my first kung fu movie, and before it ended I decided that the life of a wandering Zen monk was the life for me. . . . So I immersed myself in the study of Chinese boxing and philosophy with the kind of enthusiasm that is possible only when you don't yet have to make a living, when you are too young to drive and when you don't have a girlfriend."

This is no arbitrary beginning. Salzman skims over the swamp that bogs down many autobiographers: If everything in your life connects with everything else--which of course it does--then how do you decide what to put in and what to leave out? "Lost in Place" is tightly focused. More like fiction, indeed, than life, it has a definite plot.

Like a lot of teen-agers, Salzman feels subhuman and compensates by dreaming of being super -human: impervious to doubt, pain, fear and embarrassment. He sprints down one path to transcendence after another: kung fu, meditation, Chinese painting and calligraphy, getting admitted to Yale as a high school junior, buying (and wrecking) sports cars, playing jazz with--yes--the cello and smoking heroic amounts of pot.

He feels that, like the Woody Allen character, he won't be able to make any music at all unless he gets ahead of the parade and has time to sit down and take out his bow.

Also, he wants to avoid becoming like his father, a social worker, a painter and an amateur astronomer who is kind and understanding but chronically depressed. Life, Salzman senior keeps telling his son, is all human--no more, no less--and doubt, pain, fear and embarrassment are big chunks of it. Salzman junior refuses to listen.

The text of "Lost in Place"--contrary to what Tom Robbins' novels told us 25 years ago--is that all the paths are dead ends and that Dad, essentially, is right; though Salzmans junior and senior don't sing the blues in the same key.

"My father was a natural misanthrope who expected the worst as a matter of course," the author says, "while I am a synthetic misanthrope, an idealist who tries to protect himself from disappointment. . . . Natural misanthropes suffer when their harsh predictions come true, whereas synthetic misanthropes get a kick out of being right for a change."

The subtext is that Salzman junior thrives on adversity. He is a very bright kid with an unusual capacity for dedication and hard work. Emulating Bruce Lee and David Carradine, he walks barefoot in the snow and apprentices himself for years to a kung fu master who is a "borderline sociopath." What other teen-agers merely daydream of, he actually tries; and he emerges from these ordeals with none of the usual quota of bitterness.

Indeed, though "Lost in Place" glosses over Salzman's achievements and dwells on his dumb mistakes, he doesn't fool us. The dynamo of his idealism hums along. Good genes, good parents and good teachers help. A friend's death stuns but doesn't stop him. The sheer discipline of his writing--he leaves out sex almost entirely, for instance, because it's not part of the plot--assures us that he will turn out OK.

Self-pity is supposed to be the memoirist's main hazard. No sweat for Salzman; he dodges that with the practiced skill of--well, a wandering Zen monk. The harder task for him is to avoid sounding just a little bit smug.

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