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A Life Lived in Reaction to His Father : FICTION : TALKING IN BED, by Antonya Nelson (Houghton Mifflin: $21.95; 275 pp)

June 16, 1996|Charlotte Innes | Charlotte Innes is a regular columnist for Book Review. She also writes about books for LA Weekly, the Nation and other publications

In the opening pages of this astute first novel by Antonya Nelson, prize-winning author of three short story collections, the reader learns that Evan Cole has been willing his mean old father to die for 15 years. Even after countless strokes, the old man is "unkillable." Now, as Evan stands over his hospital bed, his father suddenly stops breathing--but only for a few seconds.

"Ev watched, incredulous, horrified, enraged, as the old man reignited, as the bellows of his lungs drew in again, ambushing Ev with their ability to perform against all odds. . . . And then he simply watched himself reach down and hold the old man's nose with his fingers, rest the convenient palm over the open mouth." Evan Cole kills his father. And he feels no guilt.

Even more remarkable, we feel no blame. As the story jolts forward from this cataclysmic moment, Nelson persuades the reader not only to empathize with Evan, but to like him, even to find him admirable. We see that it's not simply that Evan's dad was a disgusting old man who urinated in drawers and trash cans. Nor is it just that he spent his life undermining and humiliating everyone around him. What's at stake for Evan, a psychologist and inveterate self-questioner, is a hold on his own life. For he is beginning to see that his sense of self is built on the strength of his reaction against his father--he's always needed to be kinder than, nicer than, better than his dad.

Indeed, Evan is a man of essential decency, given to practical acts of kindness toward his most impoverished clients and being there for his drug-taking, homeless brother, Gerry. But with his father dead, he is able to admit to some of his father's qualities in himself--a propensity for arrogance and meanness, for demanding perfection in others. Something dies in him. He sinks into depression more deeply than even he, a professional labeler of psychic states, can recognize, a depression that reverberates throughout the lives of those he cares for.

Evan Cole is the most impressive creation of this novel, which is most obviously an exploration of marriage and family, familiar territory from Nelson's accomplished short stories: "Family Terrorists," "In the Land of Men," "The Expendables." In comparison, the other characters seem less than three-dimensional, there to be acted on as Evan's depression makes itself felt. (There are exceptions. The portrait of Evan's two young sons, with their edgy, funny dialogue, is some of the best writing in the book.) Yet somehow this unevenness doesn't matter. Such is the strength and humor of Nelson's writing, so incisive are her insights into the dynamics of family, friendship and mental illness, that every page is filled with narrative pleasures.

Evan's biggest foil is Paddy Limbach, whose father dies the same night as Evan's. The two men start up a tentative friendship, though they seem to have little in common. Paddy is a roofer, a farm boy with little education, a sunny, handsome innocent, whereas Evan is a dark, sardonic urbanite. But Paddy is also a man of impulsive acts, especially acts of kindness, and he loved his father without question. It is these qualities that draw Evan to him. Paddy meanwhile needs a father substitute, and in Evan he sees an honorable man.

Out of their relationship spins some of the book's most important revelations: that Paddy's blinkered love may also be an inability to see his dad's complexity, and that Evan's one-note disgust for his father is its mirror image.

When Evan, in a classic depressive act, leaves home, Paddy starts up an affair with Evan's wife, Rachel, a woman of strength and character who finds herself pulled between her love for Evan and her need for comfort. Even as Evan's honesty becomes Paddy's lodestar, Rachel represents sexual beauty and wisdom for him. It's as if he wants them both. He begins to find his own life sadly lacking, especially his marriage to Didi, whose surface prettiness can erupt into real violence.

All four will be affected for the rest of their lives by their memory of this time. For this is a book about mid-life reassessment. (I'm reminded of Jane Smiley's early novella "The Age of Grief," which covers some of the same ground.) These adults learn hard lessons about the difference between selfishness and the need for harmless secrets, between real kindness and the superficial, smiley sort that Paddy and Didi try to inflict on their daughter, Melanie. They grieve age-old losses and try to live with them. And they figure out how a person is connected to and separate from preceding generations.

"Talking in Bed" has its static moments. Certain key events seem forced, and the psychologizing is at times a bit transparent. The novel lacks the easy flow of Nelson's short stories. Yet I prefer this book. Many of the stories seem too polished, as if the life had been smoothed out of them. "Talking in Bed" is jittery with life, awkward with truth. It strains toward something great.

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