Life Is Full of Surprises

THE BURDEN OF PROOF by Scott Turow, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 515 pp., $22.95 IN Scott Turow's 1987 bestseller, ``Presumed Innocent,'' Alejandro ``Sandy'' Stern successfully defended Rusty Sabich. Now, in ``The Burden of Proof,'' he has a tougher job: He must defend himself before the cruelest judge, the most fickle jury - his own conscience.

Sandy arrives home one night to find Clara, his wife of 31 years, dead in the garage. The suicide note said simply, ``Can you forgive me?''

But Sandy's problem is, can he forgive himself? He takes on the burden of proof, even after he discovers a nasty secret his wife had kept from him for almost seven years, a dirty little detail that plunges him into an uncharacteristic pose of intro-and-retrospection.

To his three children, Sandy was usually away at a town named ``Trial.'' Lately, his old friend and brother-in-law had kept him busy with the IRS. Indeed, Dixon Hartnell, for whom sex and money are equally tantalizing, has now been served by the FBI to appear before the grand jury.

In time, the two questions - why did Clara kill herself, and has Dixon done anything wrong - become the same question, but not before we learn all about the legal system of federal prosecution and the art of insider trading in the futures market.

Turow is an uncommonly skilled writer, and an uncommonly eloquent one. One recalls that his education includes three degrees: a BA in English from Amherst College; a master's in creative writing from Stanford University; and a Harvard law degree. This last degree occasioned his first book, which drew on a journal he kept during his first year of law school. Before Harvard law, Turow thought he could make a living as a writer. A rejection notice from a publisher changed his mind.

Turow's learning gives his language a ballast that makes it float almost by itself, regardless of characterization and plot. But Turow's eloquence may not always benefit Turow's novel.

Indeed, his uncommon eloquence becomes a symbol of Sandy's distance from life. An Argentine Jew in love with American democracy, Sandy speaks like an Eton schoolboy. Owning up to his Hispanic heritage becomes part of his second birth.

Sometimes Turow's eloquence spurts out of control like a hose turned on full blast without anybody holding on. Of his beautiful adult daughter we read: ``Kate had never been irradiated by the most intense energies of the mysterious family dynamic.''

Those energies and that dynamic are precisely what this novel is about. As Sandy tries to confront his past with Clara, he must face the present - and future - with their grown children. Each of the three reflects an aspect of his many-sided character. Kate becomes capable of fraud. Peter, a doctor, is a cold fish, who likes to say, ``Life is full of surprises.'' Marta, a legal assistant in New York, can't seem to settle down.

Marta comes, literally, to Dad's defense, and Peter nearly destroys the family. And yet he's right: Life is full of surprises. Sandy had not kept that in mind: He had not kept alert to possible unforeseen consequences of his passionate affair with the law.

If ``life's surprises'' is a principle here, so is the virtue of being oneself. The wisdom of this novel comes out of the conflict between these two principles. Sandy learns to combine them: ``People,'' thought Sandy, ``could always surprise you'' by being themselves.

Sex plays a large role in Sandy's rebirth. Indeed, he makes up for lost time, tasting the pleasure to which Dixon is addicted. The most charming character, perhaps the only totally admirable one in the novel, is Sonia ``Sonny'' Klonsky, the pregnant assistant attorney who is prosecuting Dixon. They never make love, but they share an afternoon picking strawberries in the country and an evening in a hot tub talking about their lives. She has idolized him since the trial of ``Presumed Innocent.'' If Dixon is Sandy's alter ego, Sonny is his ideal. She has not lost her passion for the truth. He teaches her fairness.

The plot, in contrast to the eloquence, turns on all-too-common twists of fate of life in the fast lane. The plot is tabloid quality. Turow's attitude toward Sandy shifts constantly, from gentle empathy, to lyrical expressiveness, to doleful, even malicious, satire. Sandy ends up marrying an old friend.

For all its artistic imperfections - or perhaps because of them! - ``The Burden of Proof'' reproduces mainstream America's awareness of the conflict at the heart of individualism. We must be ourselves. We must serve each other. Life is full of surprises.

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