WATERLINE: Of Fathers, Sons, and Boats by Joe Soucheray (Harper & Row: $16.95; 218 pp.)

Haunted by a past that included summers on the lake, the burbling chugs of a motorboat and the billowing sheets of a sailboat, Joe Soucheray started a present-day journey of a most personal nature when he began to restore a decrepit old boat. The actual restoration, which took three years, provides the raw material for this book, but at the core of the narrative lies the author's search for self-definition, his musings and discoveries about his aging father, his own young son and his relationship to both.

Soucheray bought a 50-year-old Chris Craft utility boat, a boxy wonder of the 1930s and '40s that was now in sore need of repair. In the lines of the watercraft were the memories of childhood spent on a Minnesota lake; restoring the boat to its former glory, Soucheray says, was a way to answer the beckoning call of the past without drowning in nostalgia.

Lingering self-indulgently over each stage and detail of the restoration, the author finds joy in the work and in his stay at home after years of traveling as a sportswriter. In these home scenes, readers may find themselves looking for signs that Soucheray will want to pass on his love for boats, not only to his son, Sandy, but also to his daughter, Emily. There are none. Both children, however, seem interested--in fact, while Emily recovers from a serious childhood illness, she visits him sorting screws and filling cracks with wood putty.

Using hardware from his father's old boat (another story entirely), Soucheray revels in the touch of buttons and metal that his ancestors caressed before him. It's a proud moment when the boat wins trophies at an antique-boat show, but the author is most moved when he sees his frail father behind the wheel.

Soucheray's clear descriptions of the lake world will elicit fond recall for anyone familiar with that aspect of country life. At once particular and universal, this simple story of reassurance about the continuity of the male bond invokes ancient rites as archaic as boat-building itself.

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