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  Closer to the Sun

Peter Gadol

Picador USA/St. Martin's, $22

by Mark LaFlaur

The westward migration of restless souls, seekers, and escapists has long been an attractive motif in American literature, both for writers and for readers. In modern work the image is often of the wanderer who hits the edge of the continent like a brick wall -- the "end-of-land sadness" Kerouac describes -- or who discovers that Paradise is fraught with such environmental hazards as earthquakes, mudslides, and wildfires. But some like it hot. Like the well-known seekers of a generation or two before him, Peter Gadol is an Easterner who finds beauty and power in the sparseness and the risks of the West -- in the desert and the canyons, and in the wildfires that periodically ravage human settlements.

In Closer to the Sun, Gadol's third novel (after Coyote and The Mystery Roast), a young would-be architect named Brad Gray flees New York, where his lover of seven years has died -- of what, we can guess -- and wanders westward for two years, living on an inheritance from his deceased lover and trying to forget his loss. Eventually he finds himself house-sitting on the edge of a fire-prone canyon near Los Angeles.

Brad becomes involved with a couple across the canyon whom he has observed through his telescope rebuilding a house on the charred ruins of the previous residence. Helen and Ethan Zayne, like so many other people in the area, are attempting to put their life back together, after "we lost everything."

Because his new friends are exhausting their money for building supplies on a hotel room, Brad generously invites them to move in with him. As one obstacle after another impedes construction, we begin to suspect that this house may never be completed. We begin to sense, too, that the house may stand for something else.

What begins as an innocent cooperative effort turns complex. The Zaynes' marriage is murky with secrets. As Brad grows closer to Helen, he learns the alarming circumstances in which she and Ethan lost their home and little boy, and comes to understand that, even if they finish building the house, it may not have the restorative effect they're hoping for.

On the day they meet, as they are looking for a shortcut from the coast highway down to the beach, Helen, Ethan, and Brad break into a house ("Excuse us--just passing through"). Once is never enough. When Ethan gets a job playing piano at a hotel bar, Helen and Brad start taking long aimless joyrides through the canyons and valleys, finding uninhabited houses, and making themselves at home for a few hours -- even cooking and napping. They know they're pushing their luck; something bad is going to happen if they don't stop. Of course, they don't stop. And meanwhile, Helen and Ethan's house isn't building itself.

Peter Gadol writes with an easy, familiar attention to the structural details and soul-feeding nuances of a home. Early in the story, before he meets the builders, Brad is drawn to the construction site:

There was a certain breeze of loss in the night air on this side of the canyon, a treeless rustle that was absent on the side where I lived. I must have suspected that this was a house that was being put up by people who had lost a great deal and who had more to lose if they failed to build it.

Gadol knows how a house should be built -- his use of the technical vernacular is as clear and reassuring as a Handyman's Guide. The narrative is alive and sensuous when he describes the wood and interior textures. "Ethan kept licking his lips as if he wanted to eat this wood. Indeed it looked edible, like cinnamon, like nutmeg, like chocolate, like coffee."

The most powerful writing, though, is Gadol's extended narrative of the heat borne in by the fierce Santa Ana winds from the desert:

Houses creaked and walls cracked and roof shingles curled. Plants gave up, they wizened, they yellowed, they crumbled to the touch. Trees collapsed. . . . It was a miracle that any species survived such stultifying heat, a deep-searing heat that soaked through our flesh right down to the bone, that exposed our skulls to the sun, that made us thirsty beyond any possible quenching . . .

Unfortunately, Gadol gives far more attention to the environment and to architectural design than to the physical characterization of his three main characters. About Helen, we know only that she has "a mocha complexion" and "chocolate eyes." As for Ethan, he has blond hair, and, as we learn later, blue eyes.

What we are given instead is characterization by first impression, an intuitive reading of who these people might be. Within minutes of meeting Ethan and Helen at the Paradise Diner, Brad observes:

The man looked like the kind of person to whom you handed over your car keys hoping that he might figure out what was wrong with your transmission merely by driving the car a few miles . . . . And she was a fellow insomniac, I knew it right away. Her mind was cluttered with trivia, the years of the reigns of enlightened kings, the moons of the planets . . . . You wanted to make bread with her. That was what I was thinking: that we could make bread, she and I . . .

Gadol's writing here is rich in suggestions of the character underneath. But his impressionistic rendering would be a better introduction if it were followed by more detailed views of their interiors, or revealing enactments of the stuff they're made of.

Gadol tends to avoid or downplay conflict, however, so we never get to know the characters in their guts. When Ethan begins to suspect that Helen and Brad are getting too intimate, he confronts them in a rather mild way, then takes off for several weeks. Then Ethan returns, and they all behave as if nothing happened: No one was unfaithful, no one was away for almost a month:

[W]e went through the paces of our old routine, swimming and dining and drinking wine and swimming again . . . . I did not really know whether he and Helen were back together in an intimate sense, but I suspected that they were and that did not bother me; I may have been a tad jealous, but mostly I was relieved.

Similarly, it is implausible, even physically impossible, that when Brad wakes up (with Helen asleep beside him) in one of the houses they've broken into and sees a boy pointing a gun at him, he isn't jolted into comprehension. Instead, "I convinced myself I was only having a nightmare and closed my eyes." Eventually he does acknowledge that a real gun is pointed at him, and they run for it, but the absence of visceral recoil is nearly as shocking to the reader as the sight of the gun should have been to the narrator.

In the events that follow, Brad and Helen and Ethan appear strangely numb to their own and each other's pain. Yet these are not callous, cold-blooded people; rather, the omission is in the author's rendering of their emotions. Brad claims dramatically near the end of the book, "It is the great crime of my life that I let [Helen] go off alone," and yet he never mentions his "crime" again, and we see no after-effects on himself or Ethan.

Brad Gray has come a long way out West, closer to the sun -- and to the wildfires -- in his search for a place to live, and a way to forget his loss. In the end, however, because the author pulls him back from conflicts, Brad's journey feels as unfinished as Helen and Ethan's house. Perhaps if his deceased lover were more of a presence in the novel, a more vivid memory with which Brad could struggle toward some resolution, Brad's westward movement would correspond to a psychological maturation. Instead, the reader feels as remote from the characters as Brad must have felt watching the man and woman building the house across the canyon through binoculars. Although Peter Gadol has constructed a scenic, often wondrous habitation for his characters, with great views and (usually) fine weather, there is an emptiness in the house, and a numbness in its inhabitants, that makes a visitor more likely to house-sit than move in to stay.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review

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