by David Payne
A spongy recounting of a romantic triangle, this novel takes nearly 500 pages to reach a predictable end. Payne, a long-winded, lyrical writer (“I leaned back into the perfume of the leather and listened to the engine rise into a high-pitched whine and drop back to a purr each time he shifted, incredibly powerful and incredibly precise”), is asking a lot of his readers.
The plot beneath the purple prose is simple: Adam, now a coke-addled New York artist, returns to North Carolina, scene of his pampered childhood, and meets Jane, a smart-aleck divorcee with whom he had an adolescent affair when Jane was his best friend’s girl. (Didn’t somebody already put this to song?) The friend, Cary, had found out, of course. Adam (known as A.) had panicked and split; three years later Cary killed himself.
A. wants to sort it all out and starts by recalling that steamy teenage summer at the beach, where he and Jane fell under the ominous spell of a crazed Vietnam vet, Cleanth, before falling for each other. In creating Cleanth, a charismatic lunatic who will be eerily familiar to those who came of age in the ’60s and early ’70s, Payne is at his most convincing.
Indeed, there are so many things right in Payne’s second novel (his first, Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, was widely praised), it’s a shame the whole is such a lumbering mess. The root problem is A., a not-too-interesting protagonist whose oversize quarrel with life can be traced to the night he found his father in bed with a woman not his mother. In contrast, Cary’s more troubled background is crucially neglected: Evoked only in the first-person narrations that rotate between Jane and A., he never quite comes alive.
If Payne’s intention was to give Cary mythical stature in his characters’ lives, he didn’t succeed, and without a substantial Cary there’s a hole at the heart of this book that makes it seem annoyingly self-indulgent. (Doubleday, $18.95)