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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Men Behaving Badly, Madly and Gladly : FATHERS, SONS, AND BROTHERS: The Men in My Family by Bret Lott; Harcourt Brace; $22, 208 pages

July 21, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The mystery of the individual life--not so much its mythical significance or sociological relevance--is what Bret Lott, the Los Angeles-born novelist who has written "Jewel," "Reed's Beach" and "The Man Who Owned Vermont," ponders in this collection of autobiographical essays.

Of course, when we consider the family, myth is never far away. Lott's title, "Fathers, Sons, and Brothers," evokes not only Lott's family members but the archetypes of all our fathers, sons and brothers. The author's personal mythology centers around his father, an executive for Royal Crown Cola; his father's two brothers; his two brothers; and his two sons.

Lott replays a home movie taken in 1960, when he is a baby happily gurgling near a swimming pool. The faded, jerky film captures his brother Brad, 4, reaching over to pinch him viciously. It's the beginning of the sibling battles that the Lott boys, as if following some immemorial pattern, will wage throughout their growing up--and beyond; Lott's uncles insist on telling him sly stories that cut his father down to the kid size they remember.

And a certain amount of sociology goes with the territory. As a kid in Buena Park, Phoenix and Huntington Beach, Lott takes summer jobs at his father's bottling plant. Dropping out of college, he becomes an RC salesman, telling himself: "This is a good decision. I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life." But he has been infected, without his knowing it, by the higher expectations in the air his generation breathed.

"There came to me the belief in something else for me, something that involved going back to school, finishing a degree, whatever it was in," Lott says. Meanwhile, his father, after 27 years with RC, is fired in a corporate reshuffling, proof that the old loyalties can no longer be counted on.

"I wrote a novel, my first one, about an RC salesman . . . and because the main character in that novel feels for his job a certain disdain . . . my father believes I have a certain disdain for him and for what he has done all these years," Lott says, echoing many other baby boomers who grew up in, and then out of, the working class.

But he adds: "While I wrote that first book I got up at 5:15 each morning," just as his father had, "and wrote, in me some natural rhythm begun by no one other than him."

Almost always in these essays, the personal trumps the journalistic. Lott is wary of generalizations. His brother Brad, a fine athlete and student, slides into drug abuse before belatedly righting himself, while Lott easily avoids such pitfalls. "Why this difference between brothers . . . raised in the same household, by the same parents?" he asks, and replies quickly: "Of course there is no answer. Only that we are different people."

Disruptive things happen to the Lotts, as to all families. Brad seems to lose his balance because of the move from Buena Park to Phoenix. Lott's sons, Zeb and Jacob, are deeply affected by the trashing of their home in South Carolina by Hurricane Hugo. But Lott's specialty--not surprisingly, after all, for a fiction writer--is a quieter kind of revelation.

He tells of delivering newspapers on his bicycle at dawn through the empty streets of suburban Phoenix. His route completed, he goes back to bed and hears a sound "passing through me and swallowing me whole." It's "even more mysterious than a snake on the driveway, than a shooting star," and he wonders if he is "the only one on earth who ever heard it." Years later, he learns it's only "the noise blood makes rushing through one's head." It's no mystery--except for the enigma of his former self, his youthful need to invest the world with exotic meanings.

Recently, irritated that his 7-year-old son, Jacob, has spent too long in the bathtub while dinner was getting cold--irritated, too, by Jacob's "I got away with all that" grin--Lott does something "a little bit ornery": He turns out the bathroom light. Instead of screaming in fright, though, Jacob notices that one of his toy sharks glows in the dark.

"See?" Jacob says happily, and his father sees, all right--how, once again, people bound so intimately by blood can be strangers to one another, unfathomable; how his own supposedly adult impulse to punish the boy was in fact irrational and childish, inherited baggage; how he has done wrong and how the very distance between him and Jacob has, quite undeservedly, let him off the hook.

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