A Gathering of Old Lovers, Pals, Ex-Wives et al : A WORLD TOO WIDE by Gregory McDonald (Hill & Co.: $17.95; 290 pp.)

Diehl is the president of the Los Angeles Center of P.E.N. International

"A World Too Wide" is a dexterous delight of deceptive ease. There is a magic and a wisdom in this 18th book by Gregory McDonald--who demonstrates brilliantly that a light touch does not preclude powerful material. Without ponderousness he enchants the reader in a tale rich with philosophical resonance.

David MacFarlane, an internationally famous jazz pianist and composer, has retired with his devoted wife to the rustic quietude of Bass Clef Farm, a cattle ranch about 80 miles out of Nashville. He reads in the newspapers that Lucille Nelson, a fashion model, and Tony Prescott, a presidential speech writer, are engaged to be married. By chance, they are both the children of old friends, so--almost on a whim--MacFarlane invites them to be married at his home in June. To his surprise, they accept the invitation. This novel is ostensibly the story of that wedding.

The mid-summer nuptial in those pastoral surroundings is merely a ritual setting for Gregory McDonald to conjure up a fascinating collection of characters from all parts of MacFarlane's life. Old lovers, business associates, neighbors, pals, ex-wives, musicians, farm workers, children and various animals all swirl around MacFarlane, evoking old memories, holding philosophical debate, fighting, playing music, making love, and even dying.

McDonald controls all of this chaotic activity with the sure hand of a veteran novelist writing his 18th book. Theme and variation, point and counterpoint move smoothly through this story, as if his alter-ego MacFarlane were at the piano weaving an elaborate improvisation. But for all the echoes of Fellini's "8 1/2," this novel never slips into surreality: There is a solid sense that we are anchored to the soil of Tennessee.

"A World Too Wide" develops quickly into a study in time, in the "passages" of life, and in the way generations understand (or fail to understand) each other. The title is taken from Jaques' "Ages of Man" speech in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," the part that focuses on the sixth age, in which the symbolic Man has saved the socks of his youth that are ". . . a world too wide/For his shrunk shank.' At age 50, McDonald is fascinated by the metaphysical baggage from our youth that we carry into middle age--the weight of memories and deeds we all carry around--even though the psychological attire no longer fits. And he isolates some representative case studies in his own Forest of Arden.

For example, the father of the groom, the Rev. Dan Prescott, has lived his life feeling as if he were an obscenity. As a young divinity-school graduate awaiting his ministry, he was persuaded by a sculptor to pose nude. His very identifiable likeness became a celebrated sculpture in the New York Museum called "Twentieth Century American American--Male," and a notorious coffeetable book with hundreds of nude photographs of him accompanied the statue. His demure, small-town wife was "mortified"; she divorced him and died in an automobile accident shortly after. He effectively was barred from the ministry and made a living the only way that seemed open to him: modeling men's fashions. His son regards him as the pathetic "Lord Godiva." Rev. Prescott spends these days of his middle age doing sit-ups, staying tan and getting drunk.

Twenty-five years ago in Paris, Rev. Prescott conducted a peculiar marriage ceremony for MacFarlane and Janet Twombly. At the time, Prescott and Janet had actually been in love. Now, she reappears as a successful businesswoman and the mother of the bride, with a quietly unhappy marriage to a black newspaper columnist. Janet is still in love with Prescott and pursues him. MacFarlane learns the real reason Prescott decided to pose nude. This richly textured story involves a few other complicated secrets and interwoven subplots involving Rev. Prescott's role, too.

MacFarlane, at the center of all of this, is the mature artist who meditates on his art while he watches the human comedy around him. No longer interested in the exhausting routine of flying around the world to perform at jazz concerts, he works in his soundproof studio creating symphonies of electronic music. He and his trusted old manager argue about the relative merits of music that pleases millions versus incomprehensible works of art. Meanwhile, his closest friend and long-time musical collaborator, saxophonist Chump Hardy, lies in a coma ward nearby, the victim of his own pharmacological excesses. MacFarlane regularly visits him, bringing tapes of their music, recordings of conversations, the noises of city streets and the sounds of Bass Clef Farm. He plays these tapes hoping that some familiar sound will awaken his friend from the coma, or that they will be a comfort.

"A World Too Wide" is consciously Shakespearean, a sophisticated literary work filled with levels of meaning, symbolism and provocative philosophical subtleties. This is the kind of novel that forces you to you set it down periodically as you are reading it and think about your own life.

Lest I make this sound too formidable, don't forget that McDonald is also the creator of Fletch, that devil-may-care investigative reporter with a talent for solving murders. He has written nine books in the Fletch comedy/mystery series, three of which are being reissued this month in a single volume called "The Fletch Chronicle: Fletch, Carioca Fletch, and Confess, Fletch" (Hill & Co.: $14.95; 523 pp.).

McDonald's innovative experimentations with the detective genre also contain more substance than appears on the surface of any of his outrageous madcap stories. But, like his alter-ego David MacFarlane, McDonald clearly wants to push his art beyond the realms of proven success. He has announced that "A World Too Wide" is the first book in a quartet entitled "Time 2" which he envisions as ". . . the heart and center of his life's work." Much as I wish authors would not set themselves up with such lofty statements of intent, I am happy to report that McDonald is moving, challenging, thoughtful and--most important of all--wonderfully entertaining.

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