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A Father's Love : Ron Hansen's novel is a modern parable of the prodigal son : ATTICUS, By Ron Hansen (HarperCollins: $22; 247 pp.)

February 18, 1996|Paul Hemphill | Paul Hemphill's "The Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor-League Ballplayer" will be published in April by Simon & Schuster

Although his publisher is shilling Ron Hansen's fourth novel as "an ingenious murder mystery," that won't quite do. There are many mysteries involved in this taut story of familial estrangement, murder certainly being one of them. But at the true center of the book is an exploration of one of the most compelling mysteries of all: the anguished and abiding love of a father for his son, no matter what. "Atticus" is a play on the parable of the prodigal son, and it will chill the soul of any father who has seen a son drift away into some unspeakable hell he cannot begin to fathom.

The father is Atticus Cody (think Atticus Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird"), 67, "a cattleman without cattle, the owner of six oil rigs and 440 acres of high plains and sandhills" in Colorado; an upright man of good morals and predictable habits, whose "good" son is a respected family man and state senator. The wandering son is Scott, 40, an erstwhile artist whose latest address, after 14 moves in two decades (Key West, New York, Vermont, two stays in a mental-health clinic), is in a town full of expatriates on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, a town aptly named Resurreccion.

When Scott pops in unexpectedly for a Christmas visit in Colorado, we see the exasperated father and the cynical son at odds. There are some glimmers of the son's life in Resurreccion, an "18th century mission town tarted up for the tourists," but he is reluctant to offend his father with too many details: "I just am, Dad. You've got one son who's a huge success that any father'd be proud of, and you've got one son who's a slacker and using up your hard-earned cash on just getting by from week to week. Hell, I'm 40 years old. You oughta be used to me being a failure by now."

Then, on Christmas morning, Atticus follows his son's tracks through the snow to find him sitting in the rusty remains of the car he had crashed 16 years earlier, resulting in his mother's death, obviously the well-spring of Scott's angst.

Not two months after putting his son on a plane for Mexico, Atticus gets a phone call from Resurreccion. It is Renata Isaacs, Scott's friend and lover since their days together at the Hirsch Clinic in New York City. Scott is dead, she says, blew his head away with the shotgun the family gave him for Christmas. Atticus flies to Mexico immediately, his "Spanish for Travelers" in hand, not only to take care of details but to explore the wreckage of his son's life as well. Ringing in his head are the lines of a poem Scott wrote while institutionalized: "Here it's fall/ I feel no pain/ I hate you all/ I'll kill again."

Resurreccion turns out to be all that Atticus had feared. "Drunkards and expatriates," Scott had told him. "Writers, artists, some ex-movie people, cancer patients hunting miracle cures. Half the Americans are just middle-class retirees who can finally afford servants."

Now, checking it out for himself, Atticus begins to piece together the life that his son had chosen. Staying in the villa where Scott had lived, visiting the bars and the hillside studio where death had come, Atticus meets some of his son's friends: Renata, a foppish Brit who runs a bookstore and doubles as the American consul, a shaman named Eduardo.

It doesn't take long for Atticus to determine that his son didn't kill himself; he was murdered. They call it a "plot point" in Hollywood, where Hansen is much-favored these days, and we are willingly drawn deeper into the story.

As in his previous novel, the best-selling "Mariette in Ecstasy," Hansen writes with a sure hand about the inner lives of people struggling to find themselves in a confusing world. His prose is at once straightforward and seductive, and we are mesmerized as riddles beget further riddles and the layers of the story begin to peel away. We hear one truth in Part 1 ("Colorado"), another truth in Part 2 ("Mexico"), and finally, in Part 3 ("The House of He Who Invents Himself") we hear, in extracts from Scott's diary, the rest of the story. It would be unfair to reveal what that is. But it is fair to say that with "Atticus," Ron Hansen has made a significant contribution toward our understanding of a father's endless capacity to love his son.

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