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1st-Person Feckless : BLUE BEL AIR By Brett Laidlaw , (W.W. Norton: $21.95; 419 pp.)

Berkey, the author of "The Keys to Tulsa" (Washington Square Press), is finishing a novel about a singer of country music

Bryce Fraser, the hero and primary narrator of “Blue Bel Air,” describes himself in the early pages of the novel like this: “In regard to my desires, my ambitions, my station in society, my life, I was, you might say, ambivalent.”

This is a revelatory sentence. Spoken in what can only be called first-person feckless, with stray commas hopping out of it like fleas, it is also funny, whether intentionally or not.

Bryce’s self-absorption, however, turns out to be so solemn and complete, so unquestioned, it seems clear that author Brett Laidlaw is making a straight shot, uninflected by dramatic irony. What we have here is a kind of Bildungsroman , in which the protagonist’s coming-of-age serves primarily to display his own bruised sensitivity. He’s not ambivalent, he’s convinced: Life sucks.

Twenty-five, white and educated, Bryce is from an upper-middle-class family and has spent his life in what is obviously the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, although for some reason the two cities are scrupulously never mentioned by name. He works for a weekly neighborhood newspaper, a perfunctorily described job that taxes neither his time nor his talents. Given to aphoristic pronouncements, along the lines of “We wear masks like devious maps to the hidden self” and “The world is a structure of ideas around the bewildering flux” and “Beauty dwells in sadness,” Bryce obviously has got heavier stuff on his mind than work.

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In the opening pages of the novel, he attends a party where, through the agency of his old college friend Carla, he meets his match in a young woman named Sylvia Stenmark. In his analytic, self-conscious, attenuated fashion, Bryce becomes fixated (“falls for her” doesn’t seem quite right), and the book traces the arc of their brief affair.

Sylvia comes from the kind of family nowadays described as “dysfunctional”; she is, we are told, both brilliant and tormented, although her Angst is established more extensively than her genius. When she was younger, she once made a half-hearted suicide attempt, and she used to get sexually involved with people she didn’t really care about. These days, she’s frequently confused about the direction her life is taking; she also suffers from social uneasiness, and a sense of loneliness and isolation.

In a climactic episode, she watches way too much television, and neglects to wash her hair or do her laundry. Given its essential banality, this is all described with more bombast than one would think truly necessary.

Evidence of her alleged brilliance is even sketchier. For one thing, she gained entry to an elite western college before dropping out; for another, she works now as a technician in a university biology lab. She has also written a poem called “The Calculus of Imaginaries,” which Bryce admires as “a virtuoso effort, full of sparkling images and splendid metaphors, tightroping with considerable bravura a delicate line between sensuality and abstraction.” No kidding.

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Well into their affair, Bryce says, “I’d worked so hard to imagine her into this world as real and human, not some fantastic changeling.” At another point, he rephrases it: “She hardly seemed real, she seemed almost mythic and somehow tragic.” Indeed. For a book whose story depends so heavily on a single character, Sylvia’s reality (or lack thereof) presents some major hurdles. Overblown, yet too vague to have any real meaning, phrases like “almost mythic” and “somehow tragic” are unfortunately all too representative. Sylvia frequently seems little more than a function of Bryce’s “imagination"--that is, his ego. But the author seems unaware of this: He too appears so enthralled with the sheer notion of this character that she never comes to life.

Brett Laidlaw, whose second novel this is, shows some inspired writing on those brief occasions when he gets outside Bryce’s skull. A camping trip that Bryce takes with his buddy Frank, full of restrained physical description and mercifully free of soul-searching, stands out in particular. And there were some flashes of humor I found funny and skilled, brief as they were.

Too much of the time, however, Laidlaw seems prey to the same narcissism, pretension and world-weariness that make his hero so annoying. Not that he isn’t stumbling where many have fallen before: It seems to go with the territory of the Sensitive Young Man novel. But a character as self-involved as Bryce requires a writer with a hard, cold eye if the reader in turn is to see him clearly. And that kind of perspective is best gotten not by the magnification of his every qualm and cavil but through the wrong-ended telescope of ironic distance.

I think it’s no accident that the greatest coming-of-age novels have been written by middle-aged writers. It is a cruel world; age just makes it funnier, and deeper.


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