Cure for chronic abstraction: travel

THE LAKE By Daniel Villasenor Viking 312 pp., $24.95

When poets write prose, listen up. The best know how to make language - and readers - work overtime.

Daniel Villasenor's first novel, "The Lake," can barely contain its ambition. It's a beautifully wrought novel about trying to escape the abstractions of language. That's a paradoxical challenge for a writer to tackle.

The hero of this quest is a brilliant young philosopher, one of those professional graduate students trapped in the eddy of his dissertation, subsisting on enormous intellectuality and a tiny university stipend. We meet Zach the day he can endure the harrowing emptiness of philosophical abstraction no more. He's grown self-conscious to the point of watching the sun move across the floor of his room. Thinking about thinking about thinking has driven him mad:

"When he went to lie down in the road it was early September and already the first molted leaves of the season were awash and clumped in the street rivulets and the air was woozy already with that sharp autumnal afterdark cold which feels on the summer's throat like a handheld knife chafing on a wire."

After he's arrested and admitted to a psychiatric ward, Zach meets an irreverent doctor who takes a personal interest in his case. When he chooses to take patients, which is increasingly rare, Dr. Lazar still practices that old-fashioned brand of psychology now retired by a host of more profitable psychotropic drugs.

For two months, he comes to Zach's room with a thermos of forbidden hot chocolate and listens to the young man talk about Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. Finally, one night, he cuts him off midsentence and tells him to shut up.

"You are not sick," he yells at him. "You are not a philosopher. You are dying for things. For the feel of things. Philosophy ... is your prefabricated shopping mall from which you pick a little Aristotle from this shop, a little Hume from there, some Kant in Women's Apparel, some Rousseau in Sporting Goods, and you sit

there in this little buffered eatery of your own making and adjudicate and calibrate and expiate the world's verse."

The cure he recommends is a trip to find his real parents on an Indian reservation in Arizona. "You have to coax the world back," he tells Zach as he sends him off. Travel as therapy.

This return to his origins becomes something much larger, a return to the concrete world he's abandoned with all its messy inconsistency and ineffable emotion and baffling characters.

The intensity of Zach's vision is sometimes overwhelming, like having to speed-read a thousand haiku. Even the most incidental details are carved with exquisite detail, conveying the strain of coming back into the light of ordinary life.

Villasenor drags his hero through a compelling series of strange encounters that glimmer with the potential for violence or kindness. Naive and foolish, Zach ends up penniless and badly scarred.

When someone drops him off at the Lake, a remote unlicensed sanatorium for handicapped children, he fits right in. Anna looks after her 11 charges entirely by herself. Although she's shunned by the town's conservative citizens, the guilty parents of these abandoned children make sure she has enough to get by.

Silently, Anna does her best to repair Zach's torn face, and just as timidly Zach does his best to help out around the farm. Since many of the children can't speak, theirs is largely an elemental world of inarticulate sounds and feelings.

No one could have less use for Zach's intellectual specialty than these fractured, misshapen children. But as he learns to watch them, help them, and finally love them and their caregiver, he finds that he has resources far beyond his intellect.

Villasenor comes to the novel with a poet's willingness to risk and experiment. Told in chapters that alternate among several stages of Zach's journey, "The Lake" is a raw, haunting story of rare emotional intensity. By the end, I felt both demolished and enriched. The tragedy of this novel is as redolent with beauty as its most tender moments.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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