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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A 1970s Paradise Found and Lost

THE HALF-LIFE OF HAPPINESS by John Casey; Alfred A. Knopf $25, 514 pages

April 13, 1998|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike and his wife, Joss, are political brats--he, the son of an Irish Catholic New Deal politico; she, the daughter of a WASP patrician, "a Navy hero in WWII and then . . . what the French call a haute fonctionnaire in the CIA." Mike himself had been well on the way to a career in Washington when Joss had a short film of hers accepted at the Charlottesville, Va., Film Festival. Eager to avoid "what he feared he was becoming," Mike joined a small Charlottesville law practice and bought a warehouse, two outbuildings and seven acres of land down by the Rivanna River where he could keep his canoe.

It is this cozy compound that becomes the proving ground of "The Half-Life of Happiness," a new novel by John Casey, whose last book, "Spartina," won the National Book Award in 1989. It is a glass terrarium that Mike and Joss refurbish and stock with a companionable group of laid-back souls. In one house live Edmond and Evelyn--he's a Fish and Game warden, and she's a veterinarian. Tyler and Bonnie live in the other; they are junior faculty at the University of Virginia. And upstairs with Mike and Joss live Edith and Nora, their precocious and sensitive daughters.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 14, 1998 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Book review--The review of John Casey's "The Half-Life of Happiness" in Monday's Life & Style was written by Jonathan Levi. Another reviewer was credited incorrectly.

They cook with one another, drink with one another. Their friends include Yankees and Southerners, black folk and white, lawyers and felons, professors and prizefighters, bisexuals and unis. Their conversation walks a competitive high wire of wit and allusion, corny jokes mixing with detailed reminiscences of Romanesque churches.

"There's always been a gentlemanly view . . . that the late Baroque and Rococo were too preoccupied with illusion for illusion's sake and so forth," says Bonnie, the art historian, praising an offhand riff of Mike's. "But this is a nice little twist--your Hugh Hefner-condescension theory . . . the notion that those withered Jesuits were exploiting the female image." Mix this banter with fresh-baked bread, and you've got instant ivy-clad Eden.

Yet Mike can feel the serpent nibbling on the tightrope. The '70s are coming to a close, and things are beginning to fall apart, within him and without him. First, Mike's best friend commits suicide. Second, Joss runs off with Bonnie. The obvious solution: Mike returns to politics and runs for Congress against a six-term Republican.

At times, "The Half-Life of Happiness" sounds like "The Big Chill" without the soundtrack. A little bit of music, in fact, might have helped the novel, adding tempo to the wit and dissonance to the drama. "Spartina" was a tightly framed craft, fashioned snug enough around the voice of its salty shipbuilder of a hero to weather its barometric lows. "The Half-Life of Happiness" is admirably more ambitious, experimenting with a whole periodic table of elements. This may be its problem.

The story of this singular year in the life of Mike Reardon is told by Edith, Mike's older daughter, looking back 20 years after his annus mirabilis. While this suggests all kinds of epic father-daughter possibilities, from Scout and Atticus in "To Kill a Mockingbird" to even Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss," Mike's life is so much about Mike and so little about his relationship with his daughter that the extension sags.

Casey is too delicate a writer to turn his characters into a John Irving circus and make them up in pastel greasepaint just for the fun of it. Yet it would take far saltier sailors than Mike and Edith to keep this latest ship of Casey's afloat. Twice as much may be going on here with only half the effect.

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