DANCE REAL SLOW By Michael Grant Jaffe; Farrar Straus & Giroux: 242 pp., $20

This valentine to fatherhood, Michael Jaffe's sweet and skillful first novel, takes a wonderful quote from Richard Ford's "Great Falls" as its epigraph: "The answer is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road--watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire."

If this were a book about a young single mother, her globe-trotting noncustodial ex-husband (remorsefully returned after two years) and their beloved little boy Calvin, it would only be well-written; the plot would be too familiar for words. But loving, child-centered dad Peter Sawyer, abandoned by a confused but not evil, not carefree, wife and mother, making a life for himself and his small son in Smalltown America and struggling to make a new relationship with a fiercely protective, sensibly low-key lover is new that way.

Determined not to be like his father, Peter conjures him constantly (the hair-trigger temper, the contemptuous remarks, his brutally competitive narcissism). Peter succeeds, even swinging a little too far in the other direction, pushing me directly into my dislike of passive men (even fictional ones) who let the world turn them upside-down as they mutter with helpless, blaming resentment.

But my judgment of Peter, my criticism of his passivity, as if he were my brother-in-law or my friend's new husband, shows what makes the good parts of "Dance Real Slow" so good.

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