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The Summer of '43

A WORLD AWAY.\o7 By Stewart O'Nan (Henry Holt: 338 pp., $23)\f7

July 12, 1998|RICHARD EDER

In the wartime spring of 1943, a Plymouth chugs through the night fog along blacked-out Long Island. It carries a middle-aged husband and wife, their marriage sour and tattered, and a 12-year-old son still young enough to clutch the tatters together for his cloak.

Stay a moment with textiles. There was a time when clothiers sold suits with two pairs of trousers. Stewart O'Nan's novel of endurance suggests that for most of us, life provides only one. As the pants wear thin, there is nothing for it but to clean, patch, not-quite-invisibly mend or even cut down into shorts. There is no second pair.

"A World Away" relates a summer in the life of the Langer family--damaged at the start, injured anew as the months pass and, by fall, finding a degree of healing. It is not a miracle healing that makes things whole but the more usual kind that permits life to resume at a lower level: a broken leg that functions with scars, reduced strength and an ache in damp weather.

Anne and James Langer, a nurse and high school teacher respectively, have come from their home in upstate New York to care for James' father, weakened by a series of small strokes at his rambling ocean-side home. James had lost his job, and nearly his marriage, after an affair with a student. Anne, embittered, had subsequently suffered a near-breakdown when her father, a respected minister and her paragon, died miserably repenting unspecified sins of his own.

They arrive at the house, Anne in frozen agony and James placatory and apologetic. (Challenged by his wife to go live with his student, he had responded: "I don't want to leave you, I want to leave her.") Anne's fury increases when James takes a seven-day-a-week job at the nearby airplane plant and she is left to care for his father. She strikes back: going to work as a nurse at the army base hospital and, soon after, beginning an affair with an officer.

It is blow and counterblow. In O'Nan's canny marital physics, though, the reciprocal mayhem is a beginning, not of the end but of another beginning. Things will get worse and for much of the book they do, yet their very awfulness awakens a deeper reflex. Marriage is more than the cruise or the mutiny; it is the vessel itself. When the cry of shipwreck rings out, those aboard may drown, or they may begin to patch and salvage.

One cry is a telegram notifying the Langers that their oldest son, Rennie, is missing in the fighting in the Aleutians. Rennie's wife, Dorothy, waiting for him in San Diego, has just given birth; James and Anne must receive and care for her, her fear and her baby. They deal with their own fears in characteristic fashion: he with wordy optimism, she with angry silence.

The second cry comes from Jay, their 12-year-old. Plucky and resilient, he has taken over the daytime care of his grandfather, still only partly handicapped and still agreeable company. It is too big a burden for a child, particularly when he witnesses, alone, a new and frightening stroke.

The deeper damage to Jay comes from the household's silent war and his parents' seeming desertion--his father to the factory and his mother to the hospital and her affair. Testifier to all of his family's injury, the boy has nightmares about Rennie, his hero and mentor.

"A World Away" ranges widely through the summer. It describes Anne's affair, passionate but thin, with her lover all but invisible, just as James' student is. O'Nan presents both affairs not in their own right but as tests of his marriage story; as a result, they are schematic and uncompelling.

Much more vivid is a tense scene of Rennie aboard the troopship heading for the Aleutians. He and his fellow medics, practicing their first aid techniques aboard, are superstitiously shunned by the other troops. The fighting is described with savage vividness; the wounding of Rennie, attending a fellow medic, has a hallucinatory, death-like quality. For a while O'Nan leaves us uncertain as to whether he does in fact survive--a device that creates suspense but seems gimmicky.

The author's treatment of Anne and James, their estrangement and, under the pressures of painful reality, their acceptance of the bond between them, is accomplished with painful intelligence. Their healing, never sentimentalized, has elements of defeat as well as victory; they retreat into it.

The trouble is that although their fall and rise are told acutely and subtly, they themselves lack much charm or distinctiveness. Their story turns ponderous. Here and elsewhere, the author bogs down in his mastery of detail, for example, in a protracted account of a town veterans' parade that offers, after Rennie's battle scenes, a grotesquely purgatorial contrast between war's ordeal and its ceremonial.

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