Modern-day fable traces metamorphosis of a dullard to a sage

A Flatland Fable, by Joe Coomer. Austin, Tx.: Texas Monthly Press. 167 pp. $12.95. Eckley, a town in the middle of a land so flat that our attention is called to the drainage ditches: There's a change in elevation! So flat we wonder if it is symbolic that the pitcher's mound on the local ball field is cited as the highest elevation.

Horgan, the hero of ``A Flatland Fable'' (and it is well to remember constantly that this is a fable), is a newly married, introspective fire chief-turned-baseball coach who acts out part of Newton's first Law of Motion: Things at rest tend to remain at rest until acted upon by some other force.

All of his 40 years, Horgan has put off involvement. Like Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad's novel ``Victory,'' he refuses to get involved in life, he denies opportunity. But he waits, nonetheless, wondering what life holds for him.

As with Heyst, so with Horgan: Life comes to get him; nudges him, reluctant and unwilling, into the game (baseball, here) of life. Perhaps, in a fable, we can allow a metamorphosis from dullard to sage without any character development, for the Horgan of the closing pages is quite unlike the dull figure we meet as the novel opens.

The early Horgan, blown along by the winds that sweep through the small town of Eckley, has, by the final chapters, changed enough to qualify for graduation at the head of a class in existentialism. Further, he is intent on a closing lecture. We deduce that somehow he has been reshaped by his young wife, the words of his dying father, and the startling news brought by a surprise character.

But the ultimate shaping is done in the greatest baseball game in Eckley's history. As the game is described (the whole novel aims toward this moment), the rules of moral responsibility are clearly stated -- and underlined happily in a final episode that manages to bring every single resident of town, the visiting team -- and the reader -- right up to the line where earth and cosmos face off.

This is a very tight book: tightly written, tightly plotted (we witness just one day), and with very little given away until the last sentence. At times it is almost too tight. Author Coomer, avoiding the redundancy of normal phrasing, makes his sentences advance narrative within the often antithetical confines of metaphor. So we get a concision, a tightness of language, a stylistic tension that at times threatens to break the back of language, or of plot, or the patience of the reader.

It's like holding a spring between your thumb and forefinger. You can compress just so far until the tension you've created begins to fight back. There's a delicate balance between full control of that tension and the explosion that sends the spring shooting off into the air.

Coomer just maintains control, releasing the tension that ends his fable with a blast that should send even the most nit-picking reader out to kitchen snacks with a smile and perhaps even a chuckle.

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