MAUREEN HOWARD'S much-heralded novel "Natural History," is a penitential, quasi-Joycean chronicle/collage that purports to do for Bridgeport, Conn., what James Joyce did for Dublin. Winner of a National Book Critics Circle prize for her memoir "Facts of Life," and the author of five previous novels, Howard is a sincere and serious writer. Her intentions are doubtless worthy, but this novel never gets off the ground.
The central characters are an American family of Irish descent, the Brays, whom we first encounter during the later years of World War II. Jovial Billy Bray, the father, is a crackerjack police detective. His wife Nell is a gentle, extremely over-anxious woman who can scarcely stand hearing her husband mention, let alone divulge any details of, cases he is working on. Murder, rape, arson - even graft and petty corruption - distress her deeply.
The Brays have two children. James is a musically talented lad who loves practicing magic tricks. Catherine is a stolid, bright, hard-working, rather humorless girl. The glimpses of their childhood we are shown are singularly ungalvanizing: James going to his clarinet lesson, Catherine putting together a painstaking cardboard display about the history of cotton for a Girl Scout competition. The next thing we know, they're adults: James has become a reasonably successful film star, on his second marriage (to an ex-rodeo queen). Catherine, following a brief stint as a wise-cracking New York career gal all too popular with opportunistic married men who love her and leave her, has retreated to Bridgeport, making her living as a spinster/weaver. (Her work is prized on the artsy-craftsy circuit.)
James has taken it into his head to make a movie about an old murder case his father was involved in: the story of a rich, brassy woman who shot a soldier and got away with it. He plans to play the part of his father, the investigating detective. Catherine, however, is afraid of raking up the past. James's agent, a standard-issue tough cookie, is not very keen on the idea either - for commercial reasons. The same holds true for James's crony Morty Ziff, a predictably crass and foul-mouthed Hollywood prod ucer. The space devoted to reproducing the unbelievably trite conversations between James and his showbiz buddies is in itself reason to wish that an editor had taken things in hand.
Eschewing straightforward chronological narration, Howard has divided her novel into 10 sections, wildly varying in style and format. Everything she tries, from a screenplay-style depiction of the actorish James to a post-modern, Jacques Derridan escapade involving parallel texts on the right- and left-hand pages (called "Double Entry"), has been done before and done much better. Having to wade through leaden pages of this hand-me-down, avant-garde style is like watching someone shuffle endlessly though a worn deck of playing cards.
Even in the first, most promising section, which introduces the Brays and Bridgeport, the characters are fuzzily drawn and their lives made to seem less interesting than any life has a right to be. Here, for instance, is the mother, Nell:
"She heads downhill, down home, still hoping to see the flash of her boy's red head and a bike. Sad fact, the garbage men are at her drive, and James, whose job it is, has not put the trash cans to the curb. She hefts them against her, twice stumbling down the back path, thank God in time."
Alas, we seldom get to see Nell when she is not worrying about James on his bike or about the trash cans. Or occasionally, worrying about her husband.
Never using one word in place of six or seven, never missing an opportunity to incorporate a cliche or echo a dull phrase from her own previous paragraph, Howard proceeds to drain any vestige of life from her characters and their story.
In place of storytelling and character development, Howard offers a pseudo-anthropological assortment of facts and artifacts.
In "Double Entry," James meets the spirit of Bridgeport-based showman P. T. Barnum on the right-hand pages, while the left-hand pages feature a collage of pictures, miscellaneous facts, authorial asides, and pretentious references to everyone from Emily Dickinson to the ever-so-chic Walter Benjamin. The reader is invited to build his or her own narrative by picking and choosing among the offerings.
But the offerings in this section and throughout the book are not very tempting. A dash of family saga, a soupcon of film-noir murder mystery, a clumsy swipe at Hollywood, and a straining for postmodern special effects: This hodgepodge of prefabricated odds and ends does justice neither to the fictitious Bray family nor the real-life city of Bridgeport.