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A Tumultuous Year Through 7-Year-Old Eyes


Peter Hedges clearly believes that God is in the details. "An Ocean in Iowa" (Scribner Paperback, 1999), his follow-up novel to "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," is a slim volume bulgy with details. Some of which are significant. Iowa, home to protagonist Scotty Ocean and his family, is not one of these. The year 1969, when the story opens, is. Iowa is a good enough choice because it's in the middle of the country, because the author is from Iowa, because it makes an interesting title. But a strength of this novel is that it inhabits the extended family of suburbia as seen by a 7-year-old, a landscape not so much specific in place as it is in time. Bonanza lunch boxes, Peaches 'n' Herb, the Norelco-riding Santa commercial, Vietnam vets, space-travel obsessions--these are not indigenous to Iowa in particular. Nor are alcoholic moms and baffled dads and odd insinuating neighbor kids and nice teachers who try and mean ones who don't. These are things both specific and transcendent, and so is this book, in fleeting moments, yes, but often enough, especially for those readers born in the mutterings after the Boom, the children of Aquarius.

In 1969, Scotty Ocean turns 7. He has already predicted that 7 will be his year. He lives in a suburb of Des Moines with, in descending order of importance, his father, called the Judge because he is one (this is one of those seemingly insignificant details); his older sisters Claire (the smart one) and Maggie (the pretty one), and his mother, Joan. Joan smokes Salems, drinks beer in the morning and paints. Scotty likes his father, tolerates his sisters, but he's just crazy about his mother. And the feeling seems mutual. Joan is the kind of mother who had natural childbirth in the medicated '50s, the kind who encourages her kids to make chalk drawings on the driveway, who gets a birthday cake that looks just like the moon.

But she's also the kind of mother who has to force herself to smile at her husband, who talks for hours in whispers on the phone to a friend, who tends to "disappear"--into her studio, into her song, into an afternoon beer buzz haze. Then, after her son has successfully turned 7 and she has unsuccessfully shown her latest series of paintings--all of herself, nude (that's the kind of mom she is)--she decides she's had enough and disappears, this time for real.

Most of the book then chronicles Scotty's attempts to navigate a universe from which the center has been removed. Hedges' ability to capture the quicksilver and convoluted thoughts and plans of a 7-year-old is almost magical. Unfortunately, a 7-year-old, especially a well-drawn 7-year-old, is not the most trustworthy of narrators. Thus "An Ocean in Iowa" moves forward in loosely related incidents rather than plot, contains characters who are mostly extensions of the narrator's needs and perception, and depends more upon the deliberate structure of time--it ends with Scotty's eighth birthday--rather than any thematic or narrative climax to create its rather abrupt conclusion.

On one hand, this is all slightly annoying. On the other, it is genuinely endearing. Just like any real live 7-year-old boy trying to figure out his place in the world.

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