Good Novels Need More Than a Clever Idea

GOD'S EAR, by Rhoda Lerman. New York: Henry Holt. 309 pp. $19.95. BLUE FRUIT, by Adam Lively. New York: Atlantic Monthly/A Morgan Entrekin Book. 136 pp. $16.95. BOTH Rhoda Lerman and Adam Lively appear to have been bitten by the same bug: an irresistibly clever idea that just had to be made into a novel. Apart from this, they have little in common.

``God's Ear'' is the fifth novel of an American Jewish writer who has demonstrated a range that runs from the hectic comedy of ``Call Me Ishtar'' to the graceful restraint of ``Eleanor,'' a finely shaded fictional portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt.

``Blue Fruit'' is the first novel of a 26-year-old Englishman.

But in neither case does the clever idea really grow into a novel. A book is produced, to be sure, full of words and scenes that amplify the idea, but it is not fully developed - or allowed to develop - but merely reiterated.

Yussel Fetner, the hero of ``God's Ear,'' is a successful insurance salesman descended from a long line of Hasidic rabbis. He has resolutely turned his back on the familial vocation until one day, when his saintly old father calls to tell him he's had a message from God: Yussel is to give up his business in New York and buy land in Kansas to start a congregation. Shortly thereafter, the old man dies and the unwilling Yussel is saddled with a following of his father's lame ducks - a bunch of ``shmeggegies,'' as Yussel describes them. Yussel's problems are further complicated by visits from his departed father, who says he can't get into heaven until his son does the right thing on earth.

Counterpointing - and finally harmonizing with - the story of Yussel's reluctant return to the fold is his emerging battle/friendship with a woman who wants him to teach her to say Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) so that she can pray for her father's soul. The prayer only counts when recited by a man. When Yussel finally agrees to teach her the prayer, he has achieved his calling. He has opened his heart to moral and religious tradition on the one hand and opened that tradition to a woman on the other.

Thus schematized, the story sounds promising. In practice, however, it proves to be overlong, overbearing, and over-determined.

Although there are some lovely comic moments, the humor grows heavy-handed after a while. The constant reappearances of Yussel's departed father, commenting on the action, become tedious, and his constant refrain, that everything that happens is ``intended,'' is not only stultifying in itself, but when applied to the Holocaust (as it is on a couple of occasions), unconscionably facile.

Bringing together Hasidic lore, deep questions about human suffering, humorous vignettes about ``shmeggegies,'' Midwesterners, Jews, gentiles, even Indians (the land Yussel buys is sold by them), not to mention the questions raised by feminism, is an ambitious undertaking, which even a talented writer like Lerman may fail to bring off.

THE contrasts and parallels between the 18th and 20th centuries would seem to provide an aspiring writer with endless material. But in ``Blue Fruit,'' Lively's chief interest seems to be writing long, self-indulgent descriptions of jazz. And when the story gets away from music, it loses what little power it has.

Lively's narrator is John Field, an 18th century British ship's surgeon who unaccountably finds himself ashore in 20th century New York. He wanders into Harlem, where he is befriended by a family of ``Africans,'' as he calls them. He first mistakes them for slaves, but soon learns they are free, if not all that much better off. Eldridge works for the railroad, where he is denied a promotion he deserves. His sister May, a secretary, hopes to advance the cause of justice by working with a civil rights group. Their brother Tommy, a saxophone player, lives only for his music. Conveniently, the time-traveling narrator also happens to have trained as a violinist back in London, so he and Tommy have a lot in common.

It may strike some readers as strange that Field, who's been at sea for a while, feels no erotic interest in anyone he meets, not even the slim, pretty May. Lively's portrait of life among black Americans seems equally strained. And, even judged by its own internal logic, quite apart from any standard of verisimilitude, ``Blue Fruit'' simply fizzles out. Nothing much is made of the time-traveling, nor of the interfacing of values from two different centuries.

Lively tries to develop a story out of the contrast between the creative, spontaneous life style of the black family and the sterile, glassed-in, computerized environment of the big company that Field goes to work for. The executive (a white man) who hired Field is also in May's civil rights group. He and his company are engaged in collecting data on people like May, Tommy, and Eldridge. But what his data are, or what is made of them, we never learn, most probably because the author has no idea of what to do with his story line. John Field goes back to live with his black friends, who in the meantime have been doing well in the record business (apparently unharmed by the computers). The end.

This ineffectual effort comes festooned with quotes from British journals comparing the author to Swift. Can the commentators really have read Swift? Can they really have read ``Blue Fruit?'' Gulliver traveled. What Lively has his hero do, however well-intentioned he may be, is what used to be called ``slumming.''

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