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May 11, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Good Morning

Midnight

Life and Death in the Wild

Chip Brown

Riverhead Books: 320 pp., $24.95

In literature, there is no cure. That's why self-help books are their very own genre. "Good Morning Midnight" is journalist Chip Brown's attempt to enter the mind of northeastern winter climber and self-reliance advocate Guy Waterman. It is also the anatomy of a suicide. In the dead of winter 2000, Waterman, a very fit 67, climbed Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire, a mountain he had climbed more than 300 times, and let his body freeze to death.

In the early '70s, Waterman left a splashy career as speechwriter for Republican candidates and General Electric executives. He turned his back on a marriage begun when he was just 18 and abandoned financial and emotional responsibility for at least two of his three sons, both of whom struggled with mental instability.

At 41, Waterman and his new wife, Laura, carved a homestead and a life for themselves, without running water, electricity or other amenities, from 40 acres in East Corinth, Vt., inspired by the work of Helen and Scott Nearing. Waterman wrote several books, including "Wilderness Ethics" and "A Fine Kind of Madness," and several magazine articles on the outdoor life. The couple taught climbing and winter survival courses and lived well below the poverty line on $200 a month for almost two decades.

Brown's exploration is thorough and fascinating, but he makes the almost unavoidable error of seeing Waterman's life through the all-too-narrow lens of his suicide. Waterman's entire life, as illuminated by Brown, was an effort to get off the grid. American culture; his patrician, academic parents (Waterman's father was a highly respected professor of physics at Yale and the founder of the National Science Board); and the call of the wild forged a man who was loved by many but known by no one, not even his wife. His emotional unavailability, writes Brown, was one of the reasons his two eldest sons also committed suicide by walking into the mountains. Was the depression he passed on to his children caused by a free spirit caged in civilized society? Or was he just another narcissist? Was his death prompted by despair or simply a type of euthanasia?

We are fascinated by the minds of extreme adventurers. But in the end, we can't know what it feels like to sleep in 50 below zero weather on the side of a cliff or what it's like to spend 145 days alone, as did Waterman's middle son, Johnny, climbing Mt. McKinley. But we root for them, just as we root for those who expose and defy those aspects of society that seem contrary and even damaging to human nature. Brown was unconvinced, in the end, of what one of Waterman's friends called "the artfulness of his final project."

*

The Age of Flowers

Volume One

Umberto Pasti

Translated from the Italian

by Alastair McEwen

Pushkin Press: 224 pp., $14 paper

"The Age of Flowers," rank with the decay of aristocracy and the artifice of self-involved creativity, has such an astonishingly well-written first page that its hopeful beauty propels a reader through some of the most depressing, depraved scenes in literature:

"There is a first scene," the author begins. "The light is that of spring, but of a pre-industrial, prehistoric spring, and thus stronger and more extensive, of a spring that bites in winter or in summer, and lasts as long as it wishes: the light of spring has instantly infiltrated this slumberous film, it pierces it, blurs it, makes it crackle. The ocean is flat calm, green as a lawn. In the sky clinging to the horizon falcons describe overlapping circles. Down below, big black rocks herald the Cape."

Onto this simple stage walks Luca, 31, an isolated man in a bad marriage who is able to salvage his life through an obsession with gardening. But the stage turns rapidly from elegant to baroque to decrepit. (There are dwarfs. There is sex with very old women.)

"The Age of Flowers" has an insatiable libido, a mawkish appetite for language, a "Death in Venice" sense of decay and bad choices that bring the characters closer to death. It is a world that feels good to leave. Aha! A reader thinks. I've been given another chance!

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