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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A Canyon That Shelters and Traps : CLOSER TO THE SUN by Peter Gadol; Picador USA $22; 256 pages

February 12, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Southern California has rarely seemed more symbolic than in Peter Gadol's latest novel. The symbols aren't exactly new, but Gadol's prose burnishes them to a shimmering luster.

There is a canyon--Encantado Canyon, just over the Ventura County line from Malibu. Half green, its chaparral fattened by a winter of "record rain," and half black after the previous fall's fire season, it is where Brad Gray, whose lover has died of AIDS, ends up housesitting after two years of near-suicidal drift across the country.

The canyon is a womb where the sounds produced by distant strangers--"murmurs in the fog . . . the voices of breakfast conversations . . . laughter tripping back and forth . . . someone practicing piano scales . . . the buzz of a saw, then hammering"--give an illusion of intimacy.

It is a voyeur's paradise of glass-walled houses lit from within at night and spilling their secrets, of unoccupied houses ripe to be broken into. Gray, on the green side of the canyon, spies on Ethan and Helen Zayne, who are rebuilding their home on the black side--trying to rebuild their marriage, after the fire and the death of their 3-year-old son.

The canyon is Gray's refuge. It is a pit where the Zaynes' hopes and fears are mingled. It is a shelter and a trap.

There are houses--the house Gray helps the Zaynes nail together, board by board; the empty mansion he shares with them when their money runs low; the houses he and Helen Zayne burglarize--while Ethan is at work playing piano in a hotel bar--less for cash than for the unexpected thrill and a taste of other possible lives; the final house Helen sketches in despair, to be built on an island somewhere else.

There is the ocean--where Gray has planned to drown himself, but the proximity of which also gives the Zaynes' property its value and firefighters a reservoir.

Finally--shades of Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion--there is the wind, "record wind," the Santa Anas of autumn, desiccating the brush, making cracks show in wood and relationships alike, whipping new flames into the canyon.

Gadol ("The Mystery Roast," "Coyote") begins somewhat vaguely. The symbols precede the story instead of growing out of it. His style at first seems mannered, overpure. We learn too little about Gray, his lover, Dean, and their life on the East Coast for Gray's sense of loss to have its intended weight.

The ending, too, dissolves into fable, which Gadol can ill afford. "Closer to the Sun" is only tenuously a realistic novel, but it depends on what realism it has--just as the Zaynes turn out to be depending on exhausted credit cards to finance their dream home.

The middle is where Gadol shines. The otherworldly atmosphere of the canyon where these three flawed but likable people rise and sink, help and hurt one another is nicely balanced by the complexity of their relationship and the details of carpentry, plumbing, wiring and painting--details so evocative of basic human needs that the barest description is meaningful, and Gadol's descriptions are rich.

Just when we have him pegged as a contemplative writer, Gadol surprises us again, when the wildfires break out, with swift and exciting action.

A house is made of boards, a novel of words. This one, more than most, stands or falls on the skill of its joinery, the gloss of its finish. Unlike Didion, who specifies in "Play It As It Lays" that the "dead still center of the world" is precisely at Sunset and La Brea, Gadol deals in dreams and terrors that are shaped by the landscape but float a little above it, like mist. It's a tribute to his skill as a writer that he nails most of them down.

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