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Memories From a Sinking Ship A Novel Barry Gifford Seven Stories Press: 270 pp., $21.95

June 24, 2007|Eric Weinberger | Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University.

THE first thing to know is that Barry Gifford's new book, "Memories From a Sinking Ship," is mostly recycling: The page-long acknowledgments preceding the table of contents tell us so, and how much; it might be close to 100%, either from his previous books or articles or both, if one could take the time to count. While one can do anything one wants within hardcovers and call it a novel, readers are still entitled to ask, does the work cohere, and how?

What coheres is a tone, if not a genuine narrative -- the never-shaken melancholy of a movable childhood where not only were roots not put down, but seeds weren't even planted. Roy is a '50s child growing up in hotel rooms, pushed across the country from Chicago to Miami by a loving mother perennially disappointed by men, several of whom she marries, while others, whom Roy finds hard to recall except in small details, were only brief liaisons.

Sometimes Roy's story is told in the first person, sometimes in the third; the middle section, called "Wyoming" (which appeared as its own title in 2000), is almost entirely dialogue: Roy looking out the window while his mother drives them up and down the South and Midwest, she teaching life lessons while calling him "baby." In either mode, chapters are seldom more than a few pages; essentially, they are vignettes, and they unfold in ways that are not consistent as to place or chronology. Really, they could be read in any order.

It might be an interesting experiment. There are incidental players to the principal threesome, which includes Roy's father, but in an impressionistic work such as this one, remembering names, identifying details or relationships isn't very important. It's Roy's solitude and lassitude; his mother's loneliness and somehow, despite her many mistakes, her common sense and lack of real bitterness (she never degrades Roy's father in front of him); and his father's cheery, if ill-earned optimism, that justly form the book's principal imprint.

It doesn't read as travelogue. Animated by the sensibility that wherever they are driving is "most likely the same as everyplace else," it isn't sufficiently detailed or evocative for that. It has hardly any memorable lines: None of the protagonists is sufficiently educated, articulate or experienced. Its mundaneness is both a reason for reading, and for avoiding it, depending on taste and one's mood.

Roy is an unformed person who will, there are tiny suggestions, grow up to be restless and repressed; the foundering ship, not quite sinking, shudders on. When strong feelings are best avoided rather than confronted; when watching and waiting, even for nothing, seem preferable or bearable next to action and engagement, it is mainly because, Gifford's autobiographical novel suggests, we have come to "understand just how fragile the appearance of order in the world" really is.

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