February 05, 1990 12:00 PM

by Ann Beattie

Beneath the measured, calm prose of this lovely novel beats the touching heart of its title character, a bright 5-year-old boy.

Will’s parents are divorced and his best friend moves to Florida and—let’s not underestimate the importance of this to any 5-year-old anywhere—he doesn’t always get his own way. But he has few terrible problems, which makes it all the more remarkable that Beattie can turn his young life into such an involving story.

Some of that ability turns on her understanding of the emotional calculus that can break down superficially routine lives into pieces of quiet drama. At one point Beattie muses, “The child that reminds you of your own mortality needs so much tending to—so many wisps of hair brushed off the forehead, so many dollar bills handed out, so many anklet cuffs turned down, so much humming to accompany the soprano-sung solo—that it is almost impossible to decide whether to be as quick-talking as an escaped convict, or as patient as a penitent.”

Beattie (who has no children herself) builds a portrait of a child doing an admirable job of maintaining his balance against the puzzling forces of growing up. Will has to deal with, among other things, his irresponsible dad, who is on his third wife and living in Florida, with his mother Jody’s boyfriend, who wants her to move to New York and become a star in art photography, and with the disturbing experience of seeing his best friend sexually abused.

The novel’s adults more than hold their own. Will’s father, Wayne, for instance, is an unlikable man with a thin intellect and an even flimsier sense of integrity. When Wayne decides to go ahead and urinate in a private pool where he’s swimming, Beattie notes that “like everyone who pees in a pool—he was convinced that he wasn’t the only one. Like everyone else, for the umpteenth time in his life, Wayne was just going with the flow.”

But the book’s primary strength lies in its articulate compassion and respect for children and those who care for them: “In the silence of the house, you can sort out the day’s failures and successes. You can admit that you have approached the child with a mixture of awe, regret, and envy. Wouldn’t it be nice to scream louder than the child? To plead for peace as diligently as the child pleads for adventure? Couldn’t the table be turned, and couldn’t you be found hiding underneath?” (Random House, $18.95)

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