First-novel journeys to foreign lands

Loose Connections, by Maggie Brooks. New York: St. Martin's/Marek. 173 pp. $11.95. Equal Distance, by Brad Leithauser. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 351 pp. $17.95. A young Englishwoman abroad; a young American man in Japan. The protagonists of these two first novels are making traditional first-novel journeys to foreign lands, discovering new places and people -- and discovering themselves.

At the outset of the comic ``Loose Connections'' we meet Sally, Laurie, and Kay, three English feminists who have built a jeep. Their plan to drive the jeep to a Women's Event in Munich is brought to an abrupt halt by two obstacles that their feminism can't quite overcome: Laurie spectacularly flunks her driving test, and Kay's husband threatens to change the locks if she goes.

Facing the trip alone, Sally advertises in the classifieds for a companion, a ``German-speaking woman. Must be mechanically minded driver. Preferably vegetarian. Non-smoker.''

The only person who answers the ad is feckless Harry Hammell, who claims to fulfill all the requirements except, of course, being a woman, but he is sporting a button that announces ``Glad to be gay,'' and therefore his sex won't be a problem. So he says.

And off they go together, upper-middle-class Sally and working-class Harry, their adventures a series of calamities and feuds. Will the jeep survive the journey? Will they?

A movie version of ``Loose Connections'' has a screenplay written by Ms. Brooks.

The hero of ``Equal Distance'' is 23-year-old Danny Ott, who takes a year off from Harvard Law School to work in Kyoto as a research assistant to a Japanese law professor.

Precocious, earnest, a Yuppie-to-be, Danny is filled with good resolves when he arrives in Japan, but when his luggage doesn't arrive along with him, he gets a foretaste of chaos. No sooner is he settled into a snug if lonely routine than he meets charming 28-year-old Greg, a well-traveled American dabbler who lures Danny away from his studies to go play. Next comes a further distraction, another American dabbler, the enigmatic and appealing Carrie. Danny's expatriate experience definitely isn't turning out the way he imagined it.

This is a very first-novel first novel, yet refreshingly so, done with great good humor. The booze flows, and the boozy philosophizing takes place not in time-honored sidewalk caf'es but in public baths and establishments such as the Cowboy Honky Tonk Saloon and the True Time Texas -- and afterward continues over purchases made at a Mister Donut.

Bizarre contrasts are ever present and described appreciatively, from the temples equipped with Coca-Cola vending machines to ``an immaculate white heron'' wading in a river, ``picking its way with condescending fastidiousness through the rocks and stranded, colorful garbage.''

Ruth Doan MacDougall, the author of eight novels, reviews first novels for the Monitor.

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