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Books : A Writer’s Tireless, Often Tiresome, Search for Self

My Father in Dreams by C. E. Poverman (Charles Scribner’s Sons: $19.95; 480 pages)

“My Father in Dreams” suggests a new strategy for young writers. Publish your first novel only after you have proven yourself with three other books and a prize-winning collection of short fiction. Once you’ve established an impressive track record, you’re free to write that huge personal tome detailing every aspect of your coming-of-age, incorporating all the material wisely omitted from your prior work.

The Ultimate Commitment

When the novel begins, Jed Hartwick has just learned that his live-in girlfriend is pregnant. Gracie is leaving him to have the baby on her own, because Jed, at 35, is still not ready for that ultimate commitment. Nearly 500 pages later, Gracie and Jed are back together, the apparently contented parents of a 2-year-old son. In between, at inordinate length, we investigate the various personal crises that have led to the narrator’s state of arrested development.

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The first of these was a mysterious adolescent bone ailment that immobilized him when he was 11. Though the disease is never specifically diagnosed, at the end of a traumatic year in heavy plaster casts, Jed is cured. Gymnastics build up his muscle tone so efficiently that he becomes a competitive diver, winning trophies throughout prep school and college. If the novel were a musical comedy, the section on diving would be a “liftable” hit song, able to stand completely on its own. Poverman has almost as much to say about diving as John McPhee did about tennis in “Levels of the Game” or basketball in “A Sense of Where You Are.” When you finish these chapters, you may be amazed to find yourself dry and dressed.

These years are enhanced by an intense romance with the charming Laura, a youthful affair that finally succumbs to the pressures exerted by Laura’s father, a stuffy Bostonian who cannot accept the possibility of a Jewish son-in-law, even one with otherwise impeccable connections.

Shattered by the loss of Laura, Jed sets off for India with somewhat abstract notions of “reinventing” himself. “I couldn’t do this by teaching English to Indians aspiring to be middle class . . . my sympathies weren’t with them. . . . I had come for my special destiny.” Luckier and more stable than most such seekers, Jed hooks up with a mission to Bihar, the most desolate state in India. The workers are a highly assorted crew; a mid-1970s parade of “the sentimental, the curious, the idealistic, the cynical.” Jed Hartwick is taken in hand by a passionately dedicated Scotsman named Ian, and together, the two young men go from one parched village to another with a portable compressor, blasting into dry wells to bring life-giving water to the starving.

Here again, Poverman has written a book substantial enough to exist as an independent work. Thoroughly occupied with his essential job, the author turns his talents to describing the existence of the Indians not only with the expected compassion, but with surprising pragmatism. In Bihar, working at a grueling job under the most rudimentary conditions, the narrator’s ceaseless search for himself is subsumed by the realities of daily existence.

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Back to the Quest

Once back in the States, the quest resumes; the reader made privy to the dreams of the title. Most of these concern Jed’s ambivalence about his surgeon father and in particular, his father’s passion for sailing, an enthusiasm the son has never shared. In the course of this phase, we’re treated to an exhaustive treatise on how to dismantle a malfunctioning boat engine without finding oneself with parts left over. Though Poverman’s prose here is as strong and graceful as elsewhere, the subject remains stubbornly recalcitrant, resisting all efforts to incorporate it into the narrative proper. Unlike the other chapters, which can survive in isolation, this one seems merely orphaned.

At this difficult juncture in the novel, Jed is also besieged by a disagreeable doppelganger called “Cat Meat Man,” a nasty fellow who invades his current love affair with a sexual acrobat named Darcy, temporarily stalling progress toward the integrated adult the narrator will eventually become.

Alternately compelling and redundant; disciplined and shamelessly self-indulgent, “My Father in Dreams” actually recapitulates those long sailboat voyages the author has always avoided--trips in which genuine excitement is followed by far too much time becalmed in the doldrums.


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