July 05, 1982 12:00 PM

by John Barth

Barth writes flip, smarty dialogue between a man and his young second wife, who have a sailboat large enough to live on. They take a cruise up Chesapeake Bay, an area well known to both of them. But there is an uncharted island where awful things have happened, and there is a sea monster that causes the man to pose the question: “Have we sailed out of James Michener into Jules Verne?” Told by both the man and the woman, the story unfolds in many directions: The man is an ex-CIA officer on ” ‘Sabbatical leave’ between jobs.” (His twin brother has a common-law marriage with his mother-in-law.) The woman is on leave from teaching; her twin sister has a Vietnamese poet lover named Eastwood Ho, and she may be related to Edgar Allan Poe. Like a Poe story, Sabbatical has an element of mystery and an ending that isn’t an ending. Footnotes, thank goodness, provide basic information the reader needs to make sense of it all. Barth’s The Floating Opera (1959) and The End of the Road (1958) evoked a special sense of place, character and event. Sabbatical has many of those same qualities. It is also about sex, which the author tries to demystify with directness and humor. Although not an easy novel, it is amiable in style and tone. In Sabbatical Barth seems to want to please his readers—not just bedazzle them with technique as he did in 1966’s Giles Goat Boy. (Putnam, $14.95)

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