Growing from childhood to maturity in New Jersey

New Jersey, by Joseph Monninger. New York: Atheneum. 320 pp. $17.95. All of us have experienced the challenge of leaving our childhood behind and accepting the new tasks of being an adult. Probably for this reason, novels about these rites of passage have long been popular with novelists and readers. ``New Jersey,'' by Joseph Monninger, is that, and more.

The central character, young Max Darrigan, may not at the outset seem typical. His mother died when he was born, and he's understandably close to his father.

The novel starts to roll as Max's father, in a furiously contorted effort to make himself a better classroom teacher, decides on an educational archaeological dig for himself and his son. In his own backyard.

It's a passion that illustrates a quality the son sees in his father: ``He couldn't organize, could never deduce what was required of him. Asked for a trickle, he delivered a deluge. . . .'' And a deluge it becomes. Max's father digs day and night, deeper and deeper, but finds nothing of significance. His son's diagnosis is on target: The failure to unearth some form of ``treasure'' is met only by a more manic digging.

Max's uncle, seeing this behavior in the senior Darrigan, assumes the role of father and Max moves to his uncle's home. As he makes new friends, the ritual of his maturation begins, but in an atmosphere of tension that pits his concern for the well-being of his father against a growing commitment to his new friends.

When his father vanishes, Max is unsure what this means and finds release -- and the pathway to maturity -- in the trials and antics of his brotherhood of adolescents. These scenes are handled with less than consummate skill. One character, Stu Kellerman -- a kind of junior Milo Mindbinder (from Joseph Heller's ``Catch-22'') -- is so strongly presented that he overshadows the novel's thematic focal point: Max. Still, it is evident that the new environment shelters Max, allowing him gradually to come to terms with the tension.

There's a lyric beauty in the father-and-son scenes that makes you want the narrative to continue for the sheer joy of reading. A campout on the New Jersey shore is masterfully presented -- the bond between the two is convincing, dialogue is true, events touching in their simplicity. It is the authenticity of this father-son relationship that ultimately pulls the reader through the book. A haunting, touching last meeting between father and son at the book's close resolves the son's dilemma, and Max leaves his boyhood behind, conscious of the transition.

Though the book is not fully satisfying, its images remain warmly in the reader's memory long after it has been laid aside.

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