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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

A Trip to Self-Discovery and Back to One's Roots

SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON by Joshua Henkin; G.P. Putnam's Sons $24.95, 230 pages

May 28, 1997|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dylan Thomas once poked fun at audacious young writers by characterizing the typical first novel as an account of pain, passion, wisdom and experience "catastrophically gained by the age of 19."

To the credit of debut novelist Joshua Henkin, however, no such pretensions are displayed in "Swimming Across the Hudson." Rather, the author muses gently over the understated mysteries of life that occur to all of us in reflective moments: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

"I saw myself in everyone," says the narrator of the novel, a young man with acute powers of observation but no real sense of himself, "and everyone in me."

The voice we hear in the pages of Henkin's novel belongs to Ben Suskind, and we meet him at a crucial moment in his young life--he is 30, living in San Francisco with his girlfriend and teaching high school in Berkeley. But Ben is haunted by questions about his origins and his destiny. He and his brother were adopted, and they used to entertain each other with the notion that their biological father was Sandy Koufax. Now the question has become urgent and compelling: Who were his birth parents, Ben wonders, and where are they now?

"It's like your life is out there in the future, but it's anyone's guess what that life is," says his girlfriend, Jenny. "Sometimes it's like you're watching yourself. It's as if you're not in your own body."

What drives Ben Suskind is a desperate need to define himself by reference to those around him, a task made more difficult by the unspoken secrets and subtle tensions of his upbringing by his adoptive parents. Both of his parents are Jewish, but his father is a believer and his mother is an agnostic.

All of his relationships strike us as attenuated or stressed--or both. Ben's brother, Jonathan, came out of the closet in his sophomore year at Yale, and Ben is still struggling to cope with his brother's sexuality. Jenny is the mother of an 11-year-old girl by a first marriage, and Ben finds himself courting both of them to win and keep their affection. The familiar credo of E.M. Forster--"Only connect"--is the real theme of "Swimming Across the Hudson," except that Henkin shows us how hard it can be to make that connection.

The single most elusive connection is the one that Ben tries to make with his birth parents. Conveniently, if not quite plausibly, his birth mother shows up at precisely this moment in Ben's life, and she becomes the focus of his restless longing to define himself.

"You recognized me," Ben says to her when they first meet at a restaurant in San Francisco.

"Mother's intuition," says the woman who had given him up for adoption when she was 16 and now reclaims him.

It's a rare moment of irony in a book that is otherwise earnest and straightforward. Of course, we learn that Ben is capable of deception and deceit, and his curiosity spins out of control when he starts looking for his brother's birth parents as well as his own.

But, more often, "Swimming Across the Hudson" presents itself as one young man's unflinching contemplation of himself, an effort to calculate his position by taking a fix on the stars in the heavens of his own intimate cosmos--mothers, fathers, a brother, a lover, and miscellaneous other friends and loved ones, all of them orbiting around him as if he were the center of the universe.

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