December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

by Jonathan Schwartz

Schwartz, who speaks so eloquently and knowledgeably about American popular songs and singers on New York’s radio station WNEW, writes in this short-story collection with equal knowledge and eloquence about the frequently arid landscapes of the heart. The man who knew Cary Grant is Norman Savitt, a figure seemingly modeled on Schwartz’s father, Arthur, the composer—with Howard Dietz—of Dancing in the Dark, I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan and That’s Entertainment, among other songs. Savitt broods at one point over a failing attempt to turn out a film: “No money raised, no libretto, no theater, no leading man or woman. Ten years of not being able to get shows on, of other people dragging their feet, indecision piled upon indecision, money pledged and then pulled away.” Savitt tells his son, Jesse, “He’s in my gut. The man with the pitchfork.” Schwartz explains, “The man with the pitchfork’s real name was colitis, a word never spoken by Norman. ‘He just comes and goes,’ Norman often said. ‘He’s got comp house seats anytime he wants.’ ” Though Jesse appears in every story in the collection, the most successful pieces are the ones that also include Norman. Schwartz is at his best when limning the relationship between distant father and difficult son, Norman trying with varying degrees of success to connect with Jesse, Jesse with Norman. Especially poignant is Over the Purple Hills, which is set at Jesse’s prep school during the Thanksgiving holidays. Jesse believed that his parents thought he “didn’t know how to behave. He was so unusually improper that both his mother and father, as loving as they were, as famous as they were, with famous friends to whose houses they would go, in whose houses special meals would be prepared for Jesse’s mother because of her illness—that’s how LOVED his parents were—couldn’t have a life worth living if Jesse was around.” Norman tries to compensate. He’s encouraged that Jesse has begun saying “absolutely,” one of Norman’s favorite words, but then at Jesse’s behest, the two sit in the backseat of a car, eat their lunch and pretend to be on a trip. “Where,” Norman asks as they reach the car. “I don’t know,” Jesse responds. “Maybe home, for a visit or something. I mean, I wouldn’t STAY, or anything.” Schwartz chooses his words so carefully and writes with such assurance that it’s particularly jarring when he describes large tomatoes as “resembling brain tumors.” There are few such slips in this novel, though, and many pleasures. (Random House, $16.95)

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