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BOOK REVIEW : A Painful Story of Descent Into Despair : DROWNING <i> by Lee Grove</i> ; Viking $19.95, 358 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Supplying characters with names defining their personalities all but vanished after the Victorian era, when most authors agreed to let behavior speak for itself. Lee Grove takes no such chances, calling his terminally depressed and dysfunctional family “Downer.” They live in the meticulously styled but episodic novel “Drowning,” in which they all do exactly that, although not in the literal way.

These Downers sink emotionally, intellectually and physically, each painful descent from early promise to eventual despair described in lyrical prose, even though virtually none of the dialogue is directed at other members of the family. Every Downer drowns alone and incommunicado, not even waving as he or she slips from view.

The book opens in 1989 as Eric Downer, father of three adult children, is about to have his 85th birthday. ( Celebrate is not the appropriate word here.) Downer has whimsically turned his spacious Palm Beach estate into a rooming house for eccentric and financially embarrassed strangers. Some of them might be fun to know, but we’re offered only tantalizing glimpses. The focus is kept firmly on the Downers.

Eric has survived his shadowy wife, Lydia, and now fills his empty days by perusing his extensive stamp collection and reliving past mistakes. Once a capable industrial designer, Eric had done one outrageous thing in his life: With no warning, he walked out of his comfortable life and quite ordinary family in the middle of dinner on April 24, 1946. A mysterious, attractive woman called for him in a blue Dusenberg, and off he went to Paris with her, returning five months later.

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In the interval, re-created in one of the book’s many flashbacks, he’d lived with her and tried serious sculpture, an experiment that proved unsatisfactory on both counts. In the meantime, the outwardly conventional Lydia had consoled herself with her psychiatrist, far more imaginatively than anyone could have suspected. That affair lasted for 40 years, 39 more than strictly necessary for revenge. Although she might have turned out to be the most complex character of all, Lydia is left with the smallest role in the novel.

We hear considerably more about Eric’s daughters, Roo and Dana, but there are only ominous references to his son, Denis, who cooks, bakes and continually mows the Palm Beach lawn. We’re allowed, if not actually encouraged, to assume that Denis has a grave handicap preventing him from speaking, although that turns out not to be precisely the case.

Dana, the elder sister, is the mother of a dangerously precocious teen-aged daughter, Jessie. The interaction between Roo’s sensible son Trevor and Dana’s wild Jessie when the cousins meet at the birthday event provides the novel with a modicum of comic relief.

Now 54, Dana is finally beginning to enjoy some success as a photographer, although too little and too late to lighten her glum personality; a character soured by a bad early marriage followed by a long and alcoholic relationship with a dull academic. A brief passionate fling with an asthmatic art director temporarily cheers her, but that, like all other pleasant events in the novel, proves ephemeral.

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Roo was born just in time to become a Haight Street hippie, to fall in love with a weird flutist and to have a drug-induced breakdown. Now sadder if not wiser, she’s involved with “channeling,” which seems to help. Until she appears for Eric’s party, Roo hadn’t seen her father since 1967.

The last voice belongs to Denis, who is allocated only 80 pages. His flashback essentially begins and ends in 1962, when he taught a summer session at a boys’ boarding school. There he has the emotional and physical crises that spell his ruin, turning him into the lawn-mowing ghost we meet on Page 1.

One by one, each Downer is given a single chance for redemption, and one by one, they let it slip away. By the end, we aren’t even left with much hope for Eric’s spirited grandchildren, Jessie and Trevor, who seem genetically fated to continue the family’s slide into the deep--but a legal name change might improve their chances of survival.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “The Imposter: Stories about Netta and Stanley” by Paula Sharp (HarperCollins).

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