Coming-of-age novels usually concern teen-age characters who experience first romantic love and, with it, an awareness of mortality--in short, they encompass the two great themes of literature, love and death. The genre contains a lurking danger: The writer, particularly if still young, rarely has enough distance from those years of overwrought passion and confusion to render them effectively. The danger is compounded when a main character is a suicide, as in David Payne's second novel, "Early From the Dance."
Five years after the publication of Payne's first novel, "Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street" (recipient of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship), this novel arrives top-heavy with dedications and epigrams. It's about the intense love between Adam and Jane, a love snuffed out more than a decade earlier with the suicide of Cary, Adam's best friend and Jane's spurned boyfriend.
Called A. throughout his North Carolina boyhood, Adam is a 31-year-old New York painter, rapidly descending from the critics' grace, who gets word that an aunt has died. Home for the funeral, Adam bumps into Jane, and it's immediately clear that, after a 13-year estrangement, neither has quite stopped loving the other. Yet Cary's suicide remains between them like a barbed-wire fence, easy to see through but impossible to traverse.
In the novel's opening section, "Stormy Monday," Payne sets up his story with a risky typographical strategy. Chapters, alternately narrated by Adam and Jane, are set in almost equally blocky paragraphs, as if Payne took a tape measure to his typescript.
When trying to capture the exchange of everyday banalities, the looping conjunctive sentences can make us doze: ". . . 'and by the way, I was awfully sorry to hear about your Aunt Zoe, and so was Mama'--some little voice just added that--'she was a special lady,' and A. said, 'I hardly ever knew her,' and I said, 'that's your loss,' and he said, 'I suppose you're right,' and we took another pause."
But the strategy pays off when the dialogue is charged with submerged emotion, as in the scene between Cary and Jane's former, older boyfriend Deacon Griggs: " 'There might be some women coming over later,' Deacon said, smiling, 'you might actually get laid, which would be a first, wouldn't it, A. boy?' and before I could deny it, Cary said, 'I thought I heard you were engaged, Griggs,' and Deacon said, 'yeah, well, if you can't be with the one you love--right?' winking at me as though I might sympathize with his position, or at least know the song."
The "Stormy Monday" section, which sows the seeds of the love triangle, too often bathes in prolix and alarming sentimentality. Adam's identity as a painter feels sketchy, no more than a necessary artistic vocation that supplies him with Angst for, and easy access to, cocaine. When he leaves New York for North Carolina, his benumbed debauchery makes him seem like a castoff from a Jay McInerney novel who has landed in Thomas Wolfe country, where the landscape is sprinkled with tobacco farms instead of nightclubs.
The powerful remembered bond between Adam and Cary appears at least partially modeled on the similarly fatal one between Brick and Skipper in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which makes the boys weep when they watch it on television. Payne's use of first initials instead of names (in addition to A., an unrelated woman is called M. by a former lover) and his kid-gloves handling of Cary who, by drowning himself, goes home early from the dance, add to a sense of preciousness. Ten years after Cary's suicide, the guilt-ridden survivors still are crying at their quivery memories of him. Payne seems unaware that a few tears can go a long way.
After the incessant hand-wringing of the first section, the novel moves into the considerably longer and more compelling section called "The Lost Colony," which takes place largely during the fateful summer when the three principals are 18.
While Cary remains in town to manage his ailing father's business, Adam returns to an annual job as a lifeguard and arranges a waitressing gig for Jane at a nearby resort hotel called The Lost Colony, where he can keep an eye on her for his best pal.
The hotel is like another Deer Park. When its handsome owner, Cleanth Faison, strides into the action, the book suddenly begins to whirl dizzily with his evil genius. Plying Jane with endless lines of coke and tales of mercy killing, prison time and sexual conquest, Cleanth quickly seduces her, while Adam takes up with Morgan, a former lover of Cleanth's, twice Adam's age.
At this point the absent Cary, who is dead weight long before he dies, is spun right out of the story; Adam later admits that "Cleanth, despite his strangeness, was clear to me in a way that Cary wasn't." Well, yes. Cleanth is the book's lightning bolt, signaling a change in the weather and inspiring fear and awe in the others. Under these darkly illuminated skies, Adam realizes that he too is in love with Jane.
Just when Cleanth's electricity is at its most crackling, Payne pulls the plug with two overly literary speeches, an accusatory one by Morgan and a wistful rebuttal by Cleanth, that come out of nowhere. Payne then positions his three 18-year-olds for a Hawthornean climax of moral redemption, but after zapping them with high voltage he can't quite resuscitate them. These children are too delicate for such "Scarlet Letter" jolts.
One of "Early From the Dance's" dedications is to the memory of a friend who, like the fictional Cary, died at 21. The dedication suggests themes that form the weaker, soppier parts of the book. The sexually charged tango that Adam and Jane do with two older partners is choreographed with sinewy definition and split-second timing. This, the bulk of the book, is David Payne in top form, and it's some of the strongest, most demanding writing to be found in American fiction today. The rest appears to be something he had to get out of his system.