Flawed, fascinating first novel

The Past is Another Country, by Peter Wludyka. New York: Simon & Schuster. 396 pp. $18.95. This novel could be the most interesting failure of the season, or it may not be a ``failure'' at all. At first glance, it looks as if Peter Wludyka, who has taught math, computer science, and business, took a computer program called ``Novel: boy mystery'' and did not notice that the result reads like parody.

The setting is a clich'e: 66 years after a Soviet invasion of the United States. The main characters are clich'es: mother a Southern belle named Daisy; father a Soviet vice-minister of information; their son Alex, a college-bound senior jerked around by what he does not know. Overlaid on this grid are trios of characters of both sexes, a subplot provided by a book-within-the-book, and a mystery the boy sets out to solve.

These clich'es exhibit mythical energies. Mother is a mermaid, attached to salt water (specifically, the ocean off the South Carolina coast). Father is a Zeus-like symbol of light - electronic light: His computer program stores all the books deemed significant by the Soviets. The boy is caught between the otherness of his oceanic, indifferent mother (a drug-induced indifference) and his pragmatic father.

Enter Alex's ``older woman'' friend, Celeste. In exchange for the food he steals from the fridge, she makes Alex ``totally experienced.'' Simultaneous to visiting Celeste, Alex pursues a javelin-throwing Soviet girl.

Thus described, on the macro level this novel sounds like a bad joke. At the micro level, it seems at times simply ill-written. Direct speech is often accompanied by stage directions. The effect can be surreal. In passion, Alex's words are said to pop out ``like flakes from an early-morning cereal box.''

And maybe they do - to Alex!

He is alienated from his family and peers not only by Celeste but also by a book. `The Book' - as he naively calls it - is unauthorized, which makes him nervous around his father, the keeper of the computerized library of authorized books by which the Soviets control public thought. It describes the time before the Soviet invasion - suspect history, a memoir by a hunch-backed Polish priest, Piotr Babulieski, who has been tortured by the KGB. Sent by the Vatican to spy on a pacifist American priest who has become a teen idol, Piotr ends up shooting him.

What a role model for young Alex! ``The Book'' poses a number of problems for him. At first, he takes it as a flawed mystery novel (does Wludyka here parody his own boy mystery?). Searching through his father's computer files, he finds little corroboration for the events described. Especially with regard to New York City, the setting of ``The Book,'' which seems never to have existed.

The seeds of doubt planted by ``The Book'' keep springing up. Alex turns from engineering to history. His search for truth gradually takes over the story, which builds to a violent climax.

Rejecting his family, Alex discovers friendship and community among Christian blacks who live outside the pale of Soviet-American society. He betrays them unwittingly, then becomes a gun-toting hero. Alex discovers Jesus, history, and truth, and becomes a man. He will be punished for his inner growth as he returns to society. In the process, he loses his chance to go to the elite Moscow University and, beyond the time frame of the novel, will be forced to undergo a psychological retread.

I suspect many will reject ``The Past is Another Country'' as simply bad. The static quality of this story, its staccato, jumpy progression, its stagy dialogue and incandescent, symbol-laden characters, can be distracting. Yet it's possible that what appears to be bad writing is a way of getting inside the disquiet, the curiosity, the aching self-consciousness, of the adolescent hero.

Throughout the novel, the reader's focus is double, now on the story, now on the art. The inspiration of this art springs from the satirist's indignation, perhaps even torment.

``God hates a lie,'' Alex tells his father at the end. Having discovered the truth of history, Alex now has faith that no matter what kind of reprogramming he is in for, he has been transformed by something beyond self and society. Thus considered, ``The Past is Another Country'' is a contribution to the contemporary literature of apocalypse. Its strange luminosities are profound.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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