Middle-Class Morality Play in Muddy Shades of Gray

A CITY OF STRANGERS, By Robert Barnard. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 287 pp., $18.95 LET'S see: the bad guy, of course, is the horrible Jack Phelan (felon?). He's so vile and loathsome the pages practically hiss when he appears. So the good guys must be the ultra-respectable dwellers in the British subdivision where Phelan may be moving.

Right? Well ... yes and no. As portrayed in ``A City of Strangers'' by the sardonically smooth Robert Barnard, people rarely oblige by being totally good or evil. If that sounds a lot like real life, well, Barnard is a pro at portraying that, too, in all its muddy shades of dirty gray.

The time is the present; the place, the northern English town of Sleate. For years the slovenly Phelans have lived in their council-house, appalling neighbors, teachers, and Social Security workers with equal glee.

The aforementioned Jack doesn't work, drinks all day, and sits around in pot-bellied pastiness shouting abuse at family and passersby. His wife is little better, and the the offspring have slunk in Dad's footsteps. Eldest son Kevin already has an arrest sheet and daughter June is a prostitute. The only strange one - for the Phelans, that is - is young Michael, who shows every sign of being bright, normal, and decent.

Michael's teacher, Carol, lives in Wynton Lane, a row of six Victorian houses that unfortunately abut the council-house estate. Barnard does a nice job of introducing the lane's other owners and boarders: the strangely bedridden widow and her equally strange but attentive son; the lonely widower; the self-righteous, social-climbing Lynn Packard and his docile family.

These and other tenants are by turns outraged, skeptical, or fearful when Jack Phelan is seen looking at the one house that's for sale. A rumor has been going around that Phelan won a lot of money - could it be possible he would move to Wynton Lane? Not if most Wynton Laners can help it.

They do what other threatened, middle-class people do: They organize, they plan, they criticize. But can they prevent Phelan from invading their backyards? That begs the bigger question, of course: Should they? By making the Phelans such obviously undesirable neighbors, Barnard slightly dilutes the moral issue. And by making such sanctimonious prigs out of some of the Wynton Laners, he further blurs the lines. But Barnard is too practiced a writer not to know what he's doing, and one imagines all those blurred lines might just bring a smile to Barnard's face.

In any event, the homeowners' actions take on darker shades when murder is committed. Who is guilty now? Who innocent?

With its theme of insecure middle-class homeowners threatened by outsiders, ``A City of Strangers'' doesn't have the most original plot; neither is its conclusion stunning. Its strength and appeal lie in Barnard's depiction of human nature at its best, worst, and most indifferent. He takes what would normally be stock characters and turns them into people we recognize - not like, necessarily, but recognize. His sly sense of humor (he seems especially fond of the Phelans, really) adds another layer of appeal.

In a world where our own lines of family, status, and situation daily become more blurred, ``A City of Strangers'' provides a thought-provoking morality tale. That it also happens to be a delightfully readable story is just another reason to urge Robert Barnard to go on writing.

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