A separate peace shattered

THE RIVER KING By Alice Hoffman Putnam 324 pp., $23.95

The swans in "The River King" are an ironic motif. Alice Hoffman's latest novel is gorgeous and graceful at first, but it grows into an ugly duckling. This is a surprising disappointment in a book that's frontloaded with clever surprises, magical moments, and gothic details.

The scene opens on the Haddan prep school, one of those old ivy-covered breeding grounds of privilege for the sons and daughters of wealthy New Englanders. In its first year, 1858, the Haddan River swelled past its banks, lifted the new school buildings off their foundations, and left behind silt, mold, and frogs that can't be eradicated to this day.

Hoffman luxuriates in the details of this weedy, dark place. With a macabre sense of humor, she spins the legends and tragedies of the Haddan School history. We learn of the bitter tension between the school and the modest town. We hear the sad story of Annie Howe, the headmaster's pretty young wife who planted the school's gardens, brought in the swans, and then "hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March, only hours before the wild iris began to appear in the woods."

Hoffman's prose is simultaneously fantastical and satiric, weaving motifs of fairy tales with biting criticism of this snobby school culture.

Young Carlin Leander and Gus Pierce arrive knowing they won't fit in. Carlin is a poor, defiant girl on a swimming scholarship; Gus is a confirmed misfit. In the socially cruel world of Haddan, they make ready allies. But Carlin can't resist the attention of Harry McKenna, a devastatingly good-looking senior who makes Gus's dorm life a living hell.

The river, always eager to reach out and dissolve the school, finally draws in Gus instead. As usual, the Haddan trustees respond with a large cash gift to the town to silence any embarrassing investigation.

In the wake of recent school tragedies, the novel's dissection of campus stress rings with a painful echo. Hoffman reminds us that private schools are not the sanctuary from woe that some critics of public education would have us believe. The august faculty and administrators of Haddan are experts at ignoring and belittling weak students' pleas for help.

At first, I had high hopes that Hoffman had written a novel capable of freeing poor high school teachers from the annual endurance of John Knowles's "A Separate Peace." Alas, this isn't it.

Perhaps in a story fixated on suicide, it's appropriate that this promising novel takes its own life halfway through. Once Gus dies, "The River King" dives into shallow dialogue and gets stuck in the muck of romantic comedy.

Arriving on the scene of the boy's death is detective Abe Grey. He's a maverick, a thoughtful loner still haunted by his teenage brother's suicide. His family history is told in sensitive, compelling detail, but suddenly, what really matters is that "he was the handsomest man in Haddan."

Hoffman is a reliable bestseller, particularly among the book club crowd, but here she succumbs to the kind of silliness that gives "women's fiction" a bad name.

"His eyes were a pale, transparent blue," she tells us. "He had the sort of stare that could hold a person in place, unable or unwilling to move."

You know, that stare, the stare of those bare-chested Indians standing over women in hoop skirts on the covers of grocery-store romances.

As Abe begins his investigation, a new photography teacher introduces herself and reveals that she saw Gus with Carlin just hours before he died. "They were arguing in the old cemetery."

"Bad enough for him to kill himself over?" Abe asks.

"That all depends," Betsy notes. "It's hard to tell how people in love will react."

"Are you speaking from personal experience?"

Where are the fiction police when we need them? The crime continues: "Color rose at her throat and cheeks, and Abe felt oddly moved by her discomfort. He stepped closer, drawn by a most delicious scent, reminiscent of homemade cookies. Abe, a man who never cared much for desserts, now found he was ravenous. He had the urge to kiss this woman, right here on the path."

Something smells here, but it's not homemade cookies. In a Fannie Flagg comedy or an episode of "Cheers," this predictable romance would be fun, but in the wake of a boy's death - so sensitively prefaced - it's galling. It shatters the novel's haunting tone. The striking originality of Hoffman's teenage world evaporates when she describes these adults. Even the low-level mystery is finally abandoned when the narrator simply sweeps in and tells us what really happened to Gus.

Against this stale romance, the novel's compelling story of teenage grief valiantly continues, complete with ghostly touches that continually suggest what an inventive writer Hoffman can be. Somehow, that makes the tragedy of "The River King" even more sad.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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