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Divisadero A Novel Michael Ondaatje Alfred A. Knopf: 278 pp., $25

June 03, 2007|Thomas Meaney | Thomas Meaney is the literary editor of The New York Sun.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE is often hailed as North America's most accomplished novelist, but he would likely bristle at the provincialism implied in that praise. A Toronto native, born in Sri Lanka, he typically equips his novels with a wide international lens to capture his great theme: that human memory is something collective and that it is best summoned in a community of divergent souls.

In "The English Patient" (1992), four disparate characters hunker down in an Italian villa at the end of World War II and trip off a series of carefully wired revelations. Ondaatje's montage-like plots can be as confusing as they are affecting. In his 1982 memoir, "Running in the Family," he described his eccentric father, who was notorious for commandeering Sri Lankan trains with a handgun and forcing them to stop at irregular intervals. Like him, Ondaatje may frustrate readers with his start-and-stop narratives, but these stories become all the more satisfying when they reach their destinations.

Ondaatje's new novel, "Divisadero," opens in Northern California during the 1970s. A patched-together family consisting of a widowed patriarch, his daughter, Anna, and his two adopted children, Claire and Coop, live on a remote farm in Petaluma. The eldest sibling, Coop, who's "gregarious in his solitude," works as a farmhand on the estate, barely able to distinguish between the two teenage girls until he and Anna start meeting for trysts in his cabin. When the father discovers them together one night, he cudgels the boy with a three-legged stool, nearly killing him. Coop's transgression is the original sin that gets him ejected from Eden. By the novel's next section, the three young people have gone their separate ways.

Coop metes out his exile in Nevada, traveling with a cadre of cardsharps who comb the casinos of Tahoe for their livelihood. Ondaatje has a gift for writing lyrically about technical subjects (bridge building in 1987's "In the Skin of a Lion," bomb defusing in "The English Patient"), and these scenes are some of the best in the book. After taking tutorials from an impossibly literary poker guru, Coop counts cards in such an obvious fashion that his opponents vow to track him down. On the run, he encounters Claire, who wants to bring her brother home for a reconciliation with the old man.

Their story would have made for a novel in itself, but Ondaatje also interweaves it with the story of Anna, who narrates most of "Divisadero." As a UC Berkeley academic, she has gone to a small French town to study the (fictional) 19th-century French poet Lucien Segura. Living in the writer's former residence, she studies his life with the same intensity she devotes to memories of her own family. Take, for instance, this critical passage: "A paragraph or an episode from another time will haunt us in the night, as the words of a stranger can.... Just as I can fold a map and be placed beside another geography. A memory, a story, can be amphibious. So that I find the lives of Coop and my sister and my father everywhere ... wherever they are. I don't know. It is the hunger, what we do not have, that holds us together."

We are meant to read this passage as a comment on Ondaatje's work in nuce, which, like the folded map, buckles several landscapes together. But unlike "The English Patient," whose courtly narrator was steeped in the history of sandstorms and Renaissance esoterica, Ondaatje has left us in the hands of an English PhD, one whose literary pretensions are on full display. This is a clever way for Ondaatje to introduce reflections on the art of narrative that would be otherwise awkward -- and to be excused for the preciousness to which he has often been prone. Ultimately, it is too much.

This becomes more evident when we reach the last section of "Divisadero," which, shockingly, leaves Coop, Claire and Anna behind and gives us a mini-novella about Segura. The setting is remote, the information particular, but Ondaatje still means us to draw connections between the poet's life and what has come before. Like Coop, Segura is involved with a girl with a violent father. And later in life, the poet watches as his own daughter receives physical advances from a questionable man. The writing, as in so much of Ondaatje's previous work, is exquisite, but the two sundered halves of "Divisadero" will not hold. Those who come to this novel expecting "The English Patient" or "Running in the Family" will find it curiously over-polished -- a book that hides behind its own projected depth.

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