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SUMMER READING ISSUE : Father and Son : FICTION : DANCE REAL SLOW, By Michael Grant Jaffe (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $20; 242 pp.)

June 02, 1996|Amy Bloom | Amy Bloom's most recent book is "Come to Me," a collection of short stories from HarperCollins

This valentine to fatherhood, Michael Jaffe's sweet and skillful first novel, takes a wonderful quote from Richard Ford's "Great Falls" as its epigraph: "The answer is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road--watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire."

"Dance" is a sensitive, well-observed and loving book and there is nothing in it as tough-minded or painfully true as that quote.

If this were a book about a young single mother, her globe-trotting noncustodial ex-husband (remorsefully returned after two years) and their beloved little boy Calvin it would only be well-written; the plot would be too familiar for words. But loving, child-centered dad Peter Sawyer, abandoned by a confused (but not evil, not carefree, wife and mother), making a life for himself and his small son in Smalltown America and struggling to make a new relationship with a fiercely protective, sensibly low-key lover is new that way. In times of difficulty he territory to us.

Sawyer is a diffident lawyer, a supportive basketball coach and something of a patsy, although it's not clear that the author sees him tends to lose it, with tears or temper.

Peter's late father was an angry, basketball-obsessed coach, with harsh words for his son and hardly any at all for his devoted wife: " . . . three years after my father's funeral, my mother still hasn't gone back to work. Not because she is weighted by grief, but quite the contrary. She has spent a good deal of that time traveling, painting, reading. Shortly after my father's death I found my mother sitting on her bed with her back to the door making delicate, yelping sounds. I came up from behind and laid my hand across her shoulder telling her things would be all right. But when she turned to face me I could see she wasn't crying at all. She was laughing. She apologized, saying she could not help herself and, truthfully, she had never been happier."

Determined not to be like his father, Peter conjures him constantly (the hair-trigger temper, the contemptuous remarks, his brutally competitive narcissism). Peter succeeds, even swinging a little too far in the other direction, pushing me directly into my dislike of passive men (even fictional ones) who let the world turn them upside-down as they mutter with helpless, blaming resentment.

But my judgment of Peter, my criticism of his passivity, as if he were my brother-in-law or my friend's new husband, shows what makes the good parts of "Dance Real Slow" so good.

Jaffe creates nothing but real people and real, quirky, engaging moments. Little Calvin's grandmother, a collector of outsize and unusual souvenirs, sends him a Portuguese man-of-war. He doesn't name it right away although he does immediately adopt it as a full-fledged pet, complete with mayonnaise jar, carrying case and wire-hanger handle. Eventually, he names it Mom and both his rambling, haltingly articulated thought process as he comes to that choice and his loving, stupefied father's decision to accept, rather than ask why or argue, ring better than true.

The gradual decomposition of the much-loved Portuguese man-of-war and Peter's shift from doing anything to preserve that which Calvin needs to preserve (including bring the late Mom to the veterinarian for pickling) to finally throwing the putrid thing out, with self-righteous finality, is a fine portrait of beleaguered, where-is-the-manual? parenting.

Father and son are beautifully drawn, right down to Calvin's slow, swimming attempts to find words for feelings (and his endless lust for ice cream) and his father's slightly self-conscious and smug satisfaction at being such a good and competent primary parent. Smugness is not a very attractive quality (nor is his tendency to clump to the floor in tears under stress) but it is part of the character's unshakable authenticity.

The women in the novel, not surprisingly, are real but lightly weighted, sketches rather than whole beings.

Zoe, the girlfriend, is kindly, tough and supremely competent. Kate, the errant mother, is romantic and whimsically affectionate early in the marriage and carries a cluster of stereotypically masculine traits (she "turns her emotions on and off like a faucet"; she needs to see the world and climb mountains and is markedly unconcerned about Calvin, whom she is quite willing to deposit with her parents, if Peter wishes; she loves teaching infant Calvin about art, but his needs cease to be compelling in the face of her own).

I'm even less sympathetic to self-centered, immature mothers who abduct their kids to catch up on the mothering experience than I am to spineless guys but, again, Jaffe makes her real. Not fully drawn, perhaps, but real and three-dimensional in our brief encounters.

Jaffe sees the beauty, the sweet silliness, the frustration, the fragile joy of parenthood and understands the way it is a blinding passion for those not merely called but chosen. "Dance Real Slow" will be enjoyed most by mothers of both sexes and by readers who wish to delve into the great parent-child romance with an astute, acute and admirably besotted guide.

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