A Man's Struggle With Ghosts of Tradition : THE LAWS OF RETURN by Cameron Stracher; William Morrow $23, 256 pages


"The Laws of Return" is a Harvard lawyer's first novel, a coming-of-age tale that follows an often-trod path over familiar terrain, but the opening scene may be unique in Western letters.

"I am 8 days old," says the novel's hero of his circumcision. "The mohel hovers above me, a scalpel in his hand. I scream. He slices."

Thus are we introduced to Colin Stone, whose voice narrates "The Laws of Return." Like the author, Colin is an upwardly mobile American Jew who reaches the rarefied heights of Harvard Law School and corporate law practice--but Colin and his creator are haunted by the fretful ghosts of immigrant grandparents and countless generations of traditional Jews who came before them.

"Why did our parents bury their souls," ponders one of Colin's childhood friends, "and how can we exhume and breathe life into them?"

As he ascends toward the bleached-out peaks of the American dream, Colin pauses at the way stations of Jewish ritual--his circumcision, his bar mitzvah, the funeral of a grandparent that is also the occasion for losing his virginity, the fast day of Yom Kippur spent (or misspent) at a frat party on the campus of a Protestant college in Western Massachusetts.

"Each Jew's life is a cold swim in a deep pool," observes Colin, who is both troubled and fascinated by his Jewishness. "Each Jew's life narrates the biblical tale: bondage under a cruel master, a hasty freedom, worship of false idols, forty years of wandering, the Promised Land."

Colin's voice is lilting and carping at the same time, lyrical and sardonic, as he muses over his young life in intimate and often anguished detail. The bumps in the road get harder and harder, and his bad luck with women lurches between comedy and tragedy. Every rite of passage, no matter how secular, is touched by his ironic humor and his cracked sense of identity.

"Blessed are thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe," intones Colin as he lights up a joint of marijuana, "who has bidden us inhale the wacky weed."

But the author's wit and invention seems to slump a bit when Colin hits law school and then law practice, if only because his breast-beating about selling out to the corporate establishment lacks conviction. His otherwise wry sense of humor falls flat when he tries to laugh off his comfortable predicament.

"What they're looking for," says Colin about the law firm recruiters who court him and his classmates, "is someone who's willing to stand up for the beleaguered megacorporation with its stable of attorneys and its silos of cash against the crippled, cancer-ridden, brain-damaged, birth-defected, illiterate, impoverished plaintiff."

"The Laws of Return" will soon be followed by author Cameron Stracher's stroll through yet another familiar landscape--a memoir of his experiences as a young lawyer in a New York law firm. His courage is admirable, and the writing chops that he displays in his first novel suggest that he may be able to wring something fresh from the single most overwritten subject in recent American fiction.

But the best moments in "The Laws of Return" have nothing to do with the study or practice of law. When he conjures up the ghosts of friends and lovers, when he ponders the ironies of history and destiny, Stracher achieves something almost sublime. But when he insists on giving us Colin and his latest lady friend in a heated argument over why a guy at the office was passed over for partnership, I found myself wishing I were back at the bris.

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