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Paradise Now

SPENDING.\o7 By Mary Gordon (Scribner: 302 pp., $24)\f7

April 26, 1998|HELLER McALPIN | Heller McAlpin is a novelist and critic. She is working on a family memoir, "Life in the Compound."

Mary Gordon calls her fifth novel, "Spending," "a utopian divertimento." I call it a lark, with more orgasms per page than anything I've read since "Portnoy's Complaint" or "A Sport and a Pastime"--but from the female point of view. In a nutshell, it's about sex and money and art, and it's filled with plenty of all three, but it's the sex that takes you by surprise. It's a departure for Gordon, who isn't exactly known for being light, never mind lusty. It's as if she's expressing her sense of liberation after working through complex emotions about her mysterious, disappointingly all-too-human father in her 1996 memoir, "The Shadow Man." It's also as if she's out to prove that she's got a sense of humor.

In the 20 years since the publication of her acclaimed first novel, "Final Payments," Gordon has turned her intense, intelligent, feminist focus on subjects that range from the passion of motherhood ("Men and Angels") to the Irish immigrant experience as played out through multiple generations ("The Other Side"). "The Rest of Life," her 1993 triptych of novellas, features three women, each of whom tells the story of the lover who most affected her life. "Spending" is an apt sequel, introducing a 50-year-old painter named Monica Szabo, who tells about the lover who is also her benefactor and inspiration.

And what a lover he is! B, as he is coyly referred to until the very end, when Monica reveals his unsexy name, is a female fantasy. Monica is a new kind of character for Gordon, adamantly independent and brazen in her opinions. She is a moderately successful artist with great aspirations and a divorcee with twin 20-year-old daughters. She teaches to support her painting, which takes energy from her real work. What would it take to propel her art into another realm? Time, which means money. Enter Mr. Right. And what an entrance. As a favor to a friend, Monica is giving a slide-lecture at a gallery on Cape Cod. In discussing her painting "The Artist's Muse," she throws a question out to her audience, partly in jest: "Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?" she says. "And he stood up, just there, in front of everyone, and said, 'Right here.' "

Within hours, they're in bed together. B is a commodities trader, two years her junior, many inches taller, also divorced, no children or anyone else to lavish his money upon. He followed her work before he followed her, and he owns four of her paintings. He wants to invest further in her. He offers funding so she can quit her job, and unlimited use of his luxurious beach house. And the wonder is: He's no creep or pushover. He's sexy and attractive, smart and sharp, seems to have no hang-ups and knows how to hold his own even when Monica "whips up resentment" to his generosity. Even his family background, Jewish laundry in the Bronx, is a perfect complement to hers, Hungarian Catholic bakery in Queens.

Too good to be true? Handsome sexy rich unattached male admires her work and feels the same "inextinguishable passion" for her that she feels for him and offers to fund her with no strings and no demands? As if this weren't enough, the sight of B asleep with a book in his lap inspires Monica to produce a new series of paintings based on the great Italian Renaissance portraits of dead Christs. Monica wonders, "Suppose all those dead Christs weren't dead, just postorgasmic?" Her new collection, "Spent Men, After the Masters," depicts "the little death, not the big one." B agrees to model for her.

It's a wonderful construct, marred only occasionally by the fact that Mary Gordon, being Mary Gordon, can't help but settle into some of her customary heaviness. Gordon thinks, but alas, she also obsesses. Her Monica is intensely visual, describing everything in terms of color or in relation to various artists, such as "Berthe Morisot eyes" or hair like Bellini's Christ, as if "they're sprung from certain paintings." She is also intensely physical. This is initially refreshing, but unfortunately, despite playfulness and variety, even lushly described sex gets repetitive after the umpteenth go-around.

Gordon's heroine worries endlessly about self-prostitution and obligation. She isn't a particularly nice person, coming to the aid of her loved ones only grudgingly. Many pages are spent describing the agony, ecstasy and total absorption of the creative process, in passages that one might construe as Gordon's thinly disguised take on writing. There's also a lot of agonizing about self-worth, independence and money.

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