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A Tale of Abandonment by the One Who Left

SACRIFICE; by Todd Gitlin; Metropolitan Books $23, 230 pages

May 14, 1999|Book Review MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a given: A man who abandons his family stirs deep, tangled and painful feelings in the people he leaves behind. To his spouse--who as an adult is always complicit in the failure of the relationship--the rupture becomes graspable and survivable in time; to his child, who is a voiceless and impotent bystander, the legacy is far more enduring. The child's quest to understand his father's actions often becomes a lifelong, passionate preoccupation.

This quest is located at the center of "Sacrifice," a powerful, emotionally suspenseful, if somewhat unevenly weighted new novel by Todd Gitlin, a cultural critic and the author of a previous novel, "The Murder of Albert Einstein," and several works of nonfiction, among them "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage."

Chester Garland is Gitlin's abandoning father, a New York psychoanalyst who treats victims of torture. He has written "Abraham, Isaac and Esau: Love and Infanticide," a psychoanalytic interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac; in this story, he sees the birth of rationalization, righteousness and ambivalence in human nature, three qualities he perfectly embodies. His son, Paul, an online consultant and designer of software, sees his father's seminal book rather differently: "It gave you some relief . . . to yank yourself away from your flesh-and-blood son," Paul imagines himself saying to Chester, "and write a book about men who abandon, sacrifice and betray their flesh-and-blood sons."

"Sacrifice" opens with Chester's apparent suicide, which takes place some 30 years after he "smashed up his--that is, Paul's--one and only family." Seized by grief, Paul sets about trying to unravel the mystery of his father's life and is conveniently helped along in his detective work by an inheritance that any son would envy: three notebooks containing journals Chester kept during the period he left his family.

Gitlin assembles his novel out of Chester's first-person journals, for which he has found a thoroughly convincing voice, a mixture of the self-aware and self-deluding; excerpts from "Abraham, Isaac and Esau"; and connecting pieces of third-person narration that follow Paul as he reads through these two documents and tries to make sense of his father's actions. Gitlin's third approach is by far his weakest: Paul remains far too palely realized, reactive rather than acting, and inevitably understanding when his understanding should remain difficult and in doubt to the end.

But what a fine, sharp, compassionate portrait Gitlin draws of Chester Garland. Attending a psychoanalytic meeting in Paris, Chester slowly realizes that although he speaks the language of psychoanalysis, he has begun to doubt the efficacy of its vocabulary. He faces his moribund marriage; he contemplates suicide; he comes to a knowledge of God. "I have never loved," he thinks. And (more problematically, since these two things are not mutually exclusive): "I loved [my son] . . . but I am entitled to a life."

After he boards the wrong train by accident one morning while in France, Chester finds himself acquiring the kind of life he thinks he is entitled to: a life of sudden love for Milena, a young Czech woman and mother of a small boy. Although Chester posits that he is trading in "my old set of illusions for a new set," trade he does, and the affair brings him an awakened sense of happiness and aliveness that seems anything but sham.

During Chester's affair with Milena, a horrible event takes place that causes him to doubt God and to conclude, as he wrote in "Abraham, Isaac, and Esau," that civilization is built on the threat to sacrifice the oblivious young. As Paul observes earlier of this book, "[t]oo much code, too few clues," and to some extent the reader comes to agree. For all his elaborate theorizing about sacrifice, Chester remains a haunted, intricate human being whose final act (of self-sacrifice?) resonates as memorably and as paradoxically as all his analytic, searching, introspective words. This vivid, flawed man lives and dies boldly in Gitlin's vivid, flawed, but nonetheless intensely felt and accomplished novel.

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