Book Review : Notes on a Nice, Aware Man Without a Clear Self

Times Book Critic

The Probity Chorus by Richard Lemon (W. W. Norton. $15.95)

The soft spot in Richard Lemon's novel about a reluctant suburban Casanova is pretty well located in a complaint one of the minor characters makes about its affable hero.

He will allow for Billy Buffum's kindness and his scrupulous efforts to be fair, this minor character says. But he adds:

"Down there in what he would probably call his soul, down in places I can't get at and where he doesn't seem exactly at home, either, I wonder whether there isn't a vast, deep pool of self-forgiveness."

"The Probity Chorus" takes a jocularly steamy plot about a divorced man with neighbors who seep serially into his bed, and turns it into something quite a bit like cereal, in fact, of the healthier and milkier sort.

Billy, a magazine writer whose wife has left him for no clear reason, is an entirely nice man. He is appealingly introspective, both in his own narrative and in the encounters narrated by his various lovers and neighbors. But the "nice," the "appealing," and the "introspective" lack a proper noun to attach to. He is as bland as Charlie Brown, though more sexually active.

People Go for Him

Charlie Brown has character precisely because everybody dumps on him for being wishy-washy. Almost nobody, apart from the aforesaid minor character, dumps on Billy. People go for him in a big way and we never really see why. For all his self-awareness there's not much of a self to be aware of. He is all perspective and no edge.

"The Probity Chorus" gets off to a sprightly start. After his wife leaves, Billy, who has been both good-tempered and monogamous, makes a conscientious effort to change his ways. He takes a sledge hammer and smashes a coffee table, an enterprise that pretty much exhausts his fury for the rest of the book.

He also decides to become a rakehell, and his initial venture is agreeably absurd. He waits near New York's Grand Central Station for a suitably sophisticated candidate, and when one walks by, he invites her to dinner. The subsequent mutual seduction is drolly recounted with the painstaking detail of a gunnery manual.

His next encounter is with Cindy, the Radcliffe-educated daughter of a rich and well-bred family. Cindy is the star of a tasteful porn film; Billy goes to interview her for his magazine. She immediately proposes a date, instead. In order to snap him out of his besotted goggling--she is ravishingly beautiful--she empties a cup of fruit salad on her head.

Lemon, who can write gracefully, uses some of his better lines on Cindy. He records her mother's distress at having to choose a fabric to reupholster their shabby furniture. She is too aristocratic to believe in buying things. "It was like asking her to pick out a submarine she liked," Lemon writes.

'Interlude of Lust'

When Cindy takes Billy to her apartment, he wants to talk, but she feels they don't know each other well enough for anything but sex. The reversal is not original, but it is well put. "Please, can we have a little interlude of lust first," she says when he tries to tell her how he feels about her.

An element of cuteness has begun to creep in, and it lurks around the book's edges, though the author generally keeps it in check. More seriously, though, his story loses energy. Billy, though in love, is unable to commit himself to Cindy, and the way is open for various more-than-neighborly encounters, as well as a smattering of suburban politics.

Lemon's characters--the parade of willing women, a local minister plagued with doubts and awkwardness, a village politician, the producer of Cindy's movie--have an attribute or two each, but lack any life of their own. Their purpose is to exercise Billy, and the exercise is pretty lackadaisical. It's hard to tell a Mandy from a Winky from a Rosie, except that Rosie is thinner. Even Cindy loses definition; mainly because we don't get much sense of what she's after, apart from Billy.

"The Probity Chorus" is located somewhere between the wacky obsessiveness of De Vriesville and a fine-tuned introspection of Updike Landing. Billy Buffum emerges with all of De Vries's talent for introspective fine-tuning, and all of Updike's for obsessive wackiness.

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