A Collector of Lost Souls : HOW TO READ AN UNWRITTEN LANGUAGE, By Philip Graham (Scribner: $21; 256 pp.)

In a park, Michael catches sight of Sylvia just as she is about to bind her dark cloud of hair into a braid. To prevent it, he asks her what time it is. She is not the kind of person to carry a watch, but she does the weather on TV, so she is able to look at the sunset and tell him that it is 7:10 p.m. From there to following him home, putting some strangely sad music on his tape player, mopping up the wine he spills when he bursts into tears and climbing into bed with him takes up all of the first five pages of "How to Read an Unwritten Language."

The couple meets not just cute but precious, and in italics besides. Italics are to prose as Muzak is to elevators. Plain type, though not plain writing, is used in the bulk of Philip Graham's novel, which, in between the passages telling of Michael's present-day romance with Sylvia, describes how he got the way he is: a Holden Caulfield grown old, an incipiently arthritic Catcher of the lost and unhappy.

The first subject is Michael's mother, who, married to the uncommunicative owner of a plant nursery, bolts not like a deer but like spinach. Michael, his sister Laurie and his brother Dan come down one morning expecting breakfast. She is not a cook nor is she their mother, their mother announces, simply a woman who looks like her. It is not long before a different persona appears each day: Marcie the policewoman, Valerie the photographer, Tina the dancer.

Laurie weeps, Dan smashes his toys, but Michael tries to enter his mother's growing dementia to the point, one day, of finding himself out on the roof--she insists that he is the roofer--recommending Protecto-Guard for leaks. Ineffectively alarmed, her husband takes her bowling but she screams at the players for being mean to the pins, and snatches up the ball to protect them. Before long she dies.

Michael's next help project is his father; he organizes a shadow game one evening in which "The Amazing Dad"--he calls him that to bring him out of his shell--is persuaded to show off his knowledge of plants for the children. Next, he goes to work at the nursery, where his diligence and eagerness begin to make a dent in the older man's reserve. But Michael also feels obliged to save his younger brother, who is running wild. When he persuades his father to hire Dan as well, a complicated chain of misplaced good intentions ends up with Dan as the favored son and Michael out in the cold.

At college he falls in love with Kate, whom he eventually marries. She is a frail and deeply private artist. He devises captions for her cartoons. Since she is too reserved to draw people, she does only objects; his words aim to personify them. At first the captions are whimsical: A drawing of half a ham sandwich bears the line, "Why must I be denied digestion?" Then they turn alarming. A drawing of a hair-spray can is captioned "Set me down on the radiator, please" and a paper-clip "Come here, baby, swallow me." A Catcher needs trouble or what would he catch?

Michael's efforts to bore through Kate's reserve end in divorce. The sex is passionate, but his noodgey love begins to seem like persecution. Out on a merry-go-round one day--they go to cheer her up--she looks back and sees him on the horse behind, relentlessly following.

Graham's novel depends entirely on the ability of his narrator to free whimsy from stickiness and a would-be magical fable from the anxious gestures of the magician. There are successes here and there: a conceit that cuts away from self-conceit, a fey image or action that manages to avoid an insistent call upon our approval. Too often, the reader is apt to feel like Kate: Why, having put us on his carousel, is the writer occupying the horse just to the rear? Furthermore, Michael's voice is gnomic but curiously distracted, and his epiphanies tend to lose themselves in the odd potholes of his sentences. He is not so much an unreliable narrator as frequently an inefficient one.

Appropriately, Michael goes into the insurance business, practicing, as he puts it, "the poetics of safety." He is good at it but it doesn't fully satisfy; the rescue it offers is only money. He craves a deeper kind, and begins to visit yard sales. What he seeks are not the objects themselves but their stories. There is an ashtray a child once used as a toy crown; later he was killed in Vietnam and his father blackened bitter notches in it with his cigarettes. There is the tape of funeral songs sung by a teacher in the Philippines to his American student; later he fell in love with her and killed himself.

He acquires the plastic key-ring of a woman who learned to drive so she could run away from her husband as well as the car antenna of a man who tried to commit suicide in a thunderstorm by holding it up to attract lightning only to die, instead, from pneumonia. Finally the collection and its stories are taken on by an art dealer who sells them for a great deal of money.

Michael is well off; he also will get Sylvia, whom he maneuvers out of an unhappy marriage. It is possible, nevertheless, that he will become less of a Catcher and more of a person, owing to the lessons he learned from his yard-sale objects. They are his tiny cargo-cult; perhaps this accounts for the book's adhesive quality, as if it was soliciting its readers' assent more than their imagination.

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