FAVORING alphabetic order over chronology in "A Fool's Alphabet," Sebastian Faulks tells the story of Pietro Russell from A to Z. A former literary editor of the Independent in London and author of two well-received novels, Faulks divides his third book into 26 chapters, each about a place beginning with a different letter. Raymond Russell, a corporal in the British Army, is injured in Anzio, Italy, in 1944, just before he meets his future Italian wife. Six years later, Pietro is born in Backley, England . Like the alphabet, this dexterous novel proceeds with patient purpose - even as it zigzags through Pietro's life, occasionally teasing readers with memories of events before they read about the events.
As a boy, Pietro tries to imagine what he would be like had he been born in Egypt or Uruguay. Realizing that his mother would have been a different woman, he soon abandons these thoughts, though his interest in the connection between locale and identity remains. The chapter Faulks sets in Jerusalem in 1982, for instance, turns into an extended essay about the relationship between territory and heritage, homeland and diaspora. More concretely, while in Paris for work in 1979, Pietro spends much of his tim e marveling that the "geography, climate and character" of the subterranean Metro system "bore no relation to Paris itself, to the streets he walked when he left the Metro."
Underlying these alphabetic segments is Pietro's preoccupation with chance and order. Some of the cities are significant because he lived there, others because that's where something important took place. In 1974, his girlfriend Laura ends their three-year relationship in Watsonville, a small town off Route 1 in northern California that neither of them had intended to visit. Pietro continues alone the journey they had planned, until a nervous breakdown brings him to a halt in Quezaltenango, Guatemala.
Later, in Oxford, Pietro has learned enough about emotional truth to tell his psychiatrist that their weekly topics of discussion weren't fated: "I told you about Laura, but I didn't tell you about Gabriella, did I? I never told you about India or the week I spent in Rio ... . But suppose I had told you different things.... Would you have reached a different diagnosis?" The same logic applies, Faulks insinuates, to his alphabiography.
Knowing that life is in a state of perpetual flux doesn't put Pietro at ease, but it does give Faulks more room to negotiate. Terminal 5 - the "T" chapter - is meant to suggest the lives Pietro did not lead. It takes place, reasonably, in the Los Angeles airport, a world in which time is suspended and identity is in abeyance. Waiting to return to his wife, Hannah, and their children, Pietro intuits what he will finally be able to express in the "Y" chapter, some years later: "It was in the stillness [Han nah] offered, the static point of her love, that he had found his destination."
Sebastian Faulks has written a poignant, often romantic, deceptively peripatetic novel. The writing is sometimes passive, but like Pietro, the author understands which "scenes could yield something of what he felt, and he also knew as soon as the shutter had fired what tricks of processing, if any, would be necessary to bring out further what he had intended." In the best sections of the book - those about Pietro's mother and those about language and perception - Faulks coaxes the reader toward the slow realization that life occurs haphazardly and progresses chronologically, but is usually remem- bered thematically. Or, in this case, alphathematically.