THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE BACK YARD by Richard Snodgrass, New York: Viking, 333 pp., $18.95
NOVELS were first called novels because they purported to deal with the new and the unexpected: with novelty. Although novelty no longer seems a prerequisite in contemporary fiction, Richard Snodgrass has chosen to begin his first novel with a good old-fashioned scene in which apparent ``normality'' is confronted by an unexpected apparition.
Looking out on their backyard in Flagstaff, Ariz., one morning, George Binns and his wife, Mary Olive, discover a tall, feathered figure with a blue mask whom George vaguely recognizes as a kachina: which - as a quick trip to his dictionary further informs him - is either a Hopi spirit or a man dressed in the spirit's ceremonial costume.
What to do? George approaches it gingerly. Mary Olive is in favor of bolder action to get it off their property. The trouble is, the kachina is not actually on their property: It's just past the fence.
The disagreement about how to deal with the kachina, as we soon learn, is symptomatic of larger disjunctions in the Binns's marriage. Both in their early 50s, the Binnses have recently moved to Arizona from New York. Bluff, paunchy George is a writer and English professor. Slim, sharp-tongued Mary Olive was managing editor of a literary journal. Is and was are operative words here, because he has a well-paying job at the university and continues to write (still facing, it's true, the flurry of rejection slips that writers must contend with), while she, out of a job, misses the stimulation of the literary life they led in New York.
When they first arrived in Flagstaff, Mary Olive recalls how she was practically in tears, ``saying over and over the only words that came to her, `This is it, this is it,''' as she wondered if she'd ever again enjoy a Beethoven quartet, a good play, or ``a witty conversation carried on over smoked salmon.'' Her husband, gazing raptly at the Southwestern scene, replied, ```I know what you mean, I feel the same thing. This is it. A new life. This is what we've been looking for.'''
George's newly awakened interest in the kachina and his subsequent attempts to learn more about Hopi culture are ironically juxtaposed against how little he understands about his wife and himself - or, for that matter, their nearest neighbors, Don and Sally Pike, a similarly mismatched couple.
Don, an older colleague of George's, has just been told he hasn't long to live. But he is too emotionally distanced from Sally to tell her of his condition.
Later, when Don finds out about the Binns's mysterious Hopi visitor, he asks them not to tell Sally about the kachina, even though Sally is particularly fascinated by anything to do with Indians. Plump, earthy Sally (who strikes George as the perfect wife) first became interested in Indians when, as a student, she fell in love with Don, the wise older man who taught her all about Hopi customs. At this point in his life, however, Sally's uncritical enthusiasm repels Don, who finds he much prefers the acerbic skepticism of a woman like Mary Olive.
Against the background of two uneasy marriages, the story follows George in his efforts to find out more about the way the Hopis perceive the world. Don, the Hopi expert, cautions him: A healthy respect for the otherness of others is preferable to the naive assumption that we can all understand one another.
This well-tempered, comically rueful novel is a skillful blend of Hopi legend and middle-class marital lore. Some readers may feel they've met people like George and Mary and Don and Sally a little too often in too many other novels that deal with self-disgusted academics, discontented husbands and wives, and midlife crises.
But Snodgrass delineates his characters and their situations with a light yet sure touch and turns the contrast between archaic and modern cultures into an opportunity for something finer and subtler than simple irony. George's ``conversations'' with the kachina display Snodgrass's understated comic style: ```What I was reading said that making prayer sticks is one of the most important rituals for the Hopi,''' George remarks to the kachina, who's busy at that very task. Lining up the sticks, the kachina seems wordlessly to respond something like, ``That a fact?''
What this novel touches on is not only the challenges and difficulties of communicating between cultures (or within a marriage), but also the related difficulty we all sometimes have of seeing what is plainly in front of us. ``This is really happening. I'm really here. I'm seeing this,'' George tells himself as he watches a ceremonial dance at a Hopi village, ``Why aren't I really seeing this?'' By the end of the book, he and the others come a little closer to ``really seeing'' a lot of things about themselves, their friends and spouses, and the Hopis who live around them.
Sometimes it takes a novelty - or a novel - to help us see the obvious.