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Book Review

Evoking a Now-Lost Small-Town America

AFTER THE WAR, by Alice Adams, Alfred A. Knopf $25, 320 pages

October 10, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine God as a small-town gossip, and you'll get the feel of Alice Adams' 11th and last novel. Adams, who died last year, also wrote short stories, and "After the War" is more like a linked collection of stories about denizens of the Southern town of Pinehill in 1944-45 than a single, densely plotted work. Adams hovers above it all, sampling each character's mind in turn, spilling secrets and cross-pollinating them like some very busy, cosmic bee.

Pinehill, despite its red-dirt outskirts, is nothing like one of Faulkner's hamlets or Erskine Caldwell's rural slums. It's a college town, like Chapel Hill, N.C. It has resident intellectuals, such as James Russell Lowell Byrd, a poet-playwright who has declined to alcoholism and screenwriting. And it has Yankees, such as Cynthia Baird, "an actively unfaithful Navy wife" whose husband, Harry, is stationed in London, leaving her free to dally with the likes of Russ Byrd and foreign correspondent Derek McFall.

The town, Adams tells us, knows more about Cynthia's affairs than Cynthia thinks it does. It knows, too, that Russ' second wife, Deirdre, was his girlfriend before his first wife died, and that Graham, the boy Deirdre passed off for years as her kid brother, is really her son by Russ. Ironically, though (and it's the kind of irony Adams loves to flourish in a prose full of sly, parenthetical asides), the town accepts only the scandals it finds sufficiently juicy. It refuses, for example, to believe plump, silly Dolly Bigelow's hints that she once had an affair with Russ. But she did.

As World War II winds down, people in Pinehill anticipate that the hectic, soap-opera quality of wartime life will end. Men will come home; women will leave factories for kitchens; newly "uppity" African Americans will remember their place. But change is loose in the world--the atomic bomb, the first revelations of the Holocaust, new attitudes about race and sex--and things may, in fact, never return to "normal."

Russ' sudden death and the emergence of a younger generation propel most of the action in "After the War." Cynthia's daughter, Abigail, and Russ' daughter, Melanctha, begin college in the North and have contrasting experiences. Abigail flourishes, finding a Jewish boyfriend with Communist parents. Melanctha, self-conscious about her name (that of a black character in a Gertrude Stein novel) and her over-large breasts, is frightened by an obscene caller and retreats.

Russ' death is actually suicide. Weary of life and its romantic complications, he lets himself fall from a train in Texas, returning to Pinehill from Hollywood. But a black Army sergeant who happened to be talking to Russ at the fatal moment is suspected of murder. He is sprung from jail to avoid a lynching and comes under the protection of Abigail's boyfriend's parents, who try to recruit him into the Party.

Adams ("A Southern Exposure") is primarily a comic novelist of manners. The Big Issues crowd around this story like a biker gang trying to crash a cotillion, an uneasy mix at best. The omniscient viewpoint means we don't get to spend as much time as we'd like with Russ and Melanctha, who deserve novels of their own. And although it's amusing that the sergeant isn't in as much danger as his would-be rescuers think, there's a whiff of "Gone With the Wind" in the way the Northerners prove ignorant and hypocritical, while ostensibly bigoted Southerners like Dolly have the most heart.

Where Adams excels is in evoking a nearly lost world: Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, frat parties, pancake makeup, cashmere sweaters, gas rationing, Freud, closeted gays, the beginnings of the Red scare, worries about marital "adjustment" when soldiers return. Like their country, Cynthia and the equally unfaithful Harry have to decide how much of the past they can hang onto and how much they have to relinquish, after the war.

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