Everyman takes it on the chin - again and again

RAY IN REVERSE By Daniel Wallace Algonquin Books 225 pp., $21.95

THE BOOMER By Marty Asher Alfred A. Knopf 160 pp., $15

At first, I thought I was the only one, but over the past year, I've met others living with the same secret: We hated "American Beauty."

The rave reviews drew some of us in. Others were hoodwinked by its Academy Award for best picture. (Why didn't we learn from "Silence of the Lambs"?) For months, we endured praise of its portrayal of suburban depravity, its exposure of the spiritual emptiness of middle-class life, its sophisticated depiction of everyman's midlife crisis.

But for some of us - even those who survived the supposedly degenerate suburbs - "American Beauty" seemed like a smug attempt to justify its cynical attitude about human nature. Beyond the well-manicured lawns, it claimed, we're all a mess. The fact that the movie was filmed in such lush detail only made its lurid argument all the more insidious.

Two recent novels reminded me how tiresome these exposs of the everyman are. The first is by a talented author who should know better. Daniel Wallace's "Big Fish" (1998) was a touching, witty novel about the power of family legends. His new novel, Ray in Reverse, is a series of short stories about an ordinary guy who has just died.

The novel opens in heaven at a group-therapy session where people share (and fabricate) their last words. From there, each short chapter moves backward - in reverse, get it? - to significant moments of Ray's life: his fatal illness, his wife's return, his wife's departure, his dreary marriage, disappointment with his son, the birth of his son, dating, playing in the woods, etc.

It's a clever idea. Probably too clever by half. And thematically, it's the same sophisticated sigh of suburban despair we got from "American Beauty." Poor Ray is a selfish, unsatisfied cad. He's a bored husband alienated from his son. This is just Updike-lite.

That's too bad, because some of the later (earlier?) chapters are quite wonderful. They sparkle with the quirky detail that can make reading Wallace's work so refreshing. When young Ray runs over a neighbor's dog, he finds himself entangled in the bitter comedy of a neighbor's acrimonious divorce. In another chapter, he watches his new step-uncle toss reproductions of classic paintings into the creek. These are intimate moments realized with great clarity, and they convey the complex emotional challenges young Ray will confront as an adult.

Unfortunately, the novel's gimmicky structure works against it. What are we to conclude from Ray the adult - the cranky, disappointed man we first meet in heaven? As we move back through his life, he seems increasingly interesting, compassionate, and courageous. By the end of the book, Ray's moral development seems as reversed as the order of these chapters, suggesting that his descent into despair and self-absorption is as inevitable as growing old.

How, we might ask, could such a sensitive child and adolescent culminate in such clich dissatisfaction and bland self-absorption? Because, naive reader, that's the way modern life is. Get used to it.

The strengths of this book (and his previous one) give every indication that Wallace's next one will be better, but the same can't be said for a trite little illustrated novel being heavily marketed by Knopf called The Boomer. The author, Marty Asher, has assembled his everyman tale in a series of 101 very short chapters - most are only a couple sentences. Imagine "Dick and Jane" with more cynicism and less Spot.

In Chapter 1, "the boomer" is "a happy baby who never cried." In Chapter 4, "He stole quarters from his mother's purse." By Chapter 15, the tough irony of modern life begins to increase: "The boomer liked reading. For a while he thought love, war, and death happened only in books." Ahhh.

In Chapter 23, he makes out with a girl after the prom. Forty-three chapters later, "the boomer cheated on his wife three times." In subsequent chapters, "he trades stocks on the Internet," "develops a serious illness," and dies.

This is a difficult novel to summarize - like trying to concentrate vanilla flavoring. The jacket tells us that the boomer is "smart, successful, and on the brink of total despair," and then asks rhetorically, "Sound like anyone you know?" Of course, we're to understand that this is all of us guys reduced to our essential elements, but that's about as illuminating as being told we're 96 percent water.

"The Boomer" is cleverly produced to look like the perfect impulse buy for that "someone you know." But shoppers initially charmed by its concentrated text and 1950s illustrations will find the novel has little to offer that can't be discovered (and left) at the bookstore.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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