LEADING THE CHEERS By Justin Cartwright Carroll & Graf 246 pp, $23.95
Justin Cartwright has written a novel about attending a high school reunion that's as enjoyable and unsettling as a high school reunion.
Having permanently left Hollybush, Mich., for England after graduation, Dan Silas is an unusual man. But the comic anxiety he feels about being confronted by stories of his youth is entirely typical.
In the 30 years that have passed, Dan has made a fortune in advertising and developed into a person of sophisticated tastes and precision-controlled habits. He lives in a neighborhood where the gleaming white houses "suggest deliberate restraint, hinting at reserves of character and cash which poorer, and more lurid, people do not possess."
We meet Dan at the moment his London elegance is about to be shattered. He's lost his job in a lucrative Japanese buyout, but the bounty he reaped is threatened by a bitter palimony suit. Alone and jobless, Dan decides, "I must open myself to the bounty which life has to offer.... There must be many aspects of life's richness of which I have no inkling."
When his vanity is piqued by an invitation to speak at his high school reunion, he gets a lot more of life's richness than he bargained for.
Since graduation, he's imagined America as the place idealized by his high school civics class. "America was bright and vigorous," he croons, "and Thomas Edison was directly responsible for this happy state of affairs."
This national optimism is joined in his mind with the romanticized sexual exploits he carried on during field trips to America's historical places.
He arrives in the States with aphorisms from Emerson and Jefferson ringing in his mind, but a lot of painful, internal adjustments have to be made.
Even as he drives to his hotel, the radio hints of trouble. Fueled by the Clintons' sordid self-parody of the First Family, Rush Limbaugh burns with incendiary cynicism. Michigan's archangel, Dr. Kervorkian, is announcing new plans to murder depressed patients. And Dan's hometown has been ravaged by the intervening ups and downs of the automobile industry.
He expects to be unsettled by "the quirks of memory" that reunions inevitably disclose, but he's not at all ready to hear from Gloria, his high school girlfriend, that he fathered a daughter during their brief tryst in the Jefferson museum. What's worse, he can't meet the young woman because she was murdered just a few years back by a serial rapist.
Struggling to comprehend these revelations, our bewildered antihero is called to the home of his old best friend, who now believes he is Pale Eagle, a Shawnee who died in the 1813 Battle of Detroit.
I know this sounds maudlin, but in Cartwright's hands it's touching, witty, and provocative. Behind the story of a reunion among some wounded classmates and moments of ripe satire lies a fascinating meditation about the distorting function of memory.
As Dan struggles to help bring closure to Gloria's tragedy and Pale Eagle's delusional quest, he finds himself having to confront the brutal side of America and himself. That national tendency to synthesize an innocent past turns out to be a very personal tendency, as well.
Dan's journey home turns into a search for a carefully buried sense of shame. By the end of this tender story, he manages to acknowledge his capacity to hurt others, but more important, he develops the courage to comfort them, even when their injuries aren't his fault.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to email@example.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society