July 06, 1987 12:00 PM

by James Dickey

The idea for this novel is a grand one, but the sweep and power the story should have are suffocatingly buried in a mass of tedious detail. The year is 1943. Frank Cahill, 54, is blinded by diabetes. He closes up the Atlanta amusement park he owns and, with his dog, takes a bus to an Air Corps training base near a little North Carolina town called Peckover. His only son, a cadet in training, has crashed his plane and is presumed dead. (This is a son Cahill never saw—his wife left him before the boy was born.) At the air base Cahill finds that his son, who was the best at everything, is a kind of cult hero to other trainees. Dickey, a poet and author of the novel Deliverance, occasionally divides pages in this book into two columns. At first this seems an enormous obstacle, but there is a point to it: Bold type on the left of the page contains Cahill’s thoughts and words; the second column describes what others see and say. Other flourishes are less forgivable. There is garbled information about Alnilam, a minor star at the center of a galaxy. Air movements are constantly noted. The symbolism is plentiful, poetic and clunky—all at the same time. The story should, at some point, take off and soar, give us a thrill, but it never makes it. One problem may be Cahill’s dialogue, pseudo-redneck gruff. He says things like, “I bet you couldn’a drove a needle up your ——- with a sledgehammer.” Instead of grandeur, Alnilam has a cheerless phoniness about it. The problem may be that Dickey does not love his characters. He patronizes them—and the reader—with arty pretensions. (Doubleday, $19.95)

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