Dixon's complex novel treats the theme of loss

December 15, 1991|By Norrie Epstein


Stephen Dixon.

British-American Publishing.

769 pages.

$29.95; $17.95 (paperback). That "Frog" should be so moving came as a surprise. It promised to be a "literary tour de force," one of those formidable books that critics admire, everybody talks about, but few enjoy.

It's more than 750 pages; author Stephen Dixon, a professor of fiction in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, was nominated for the prestigious National Book Award; Publishers Weekly called it a "Joycean monolith" (meaning that it probably didn't know what else to say); its back cover is filled with polished blurbs from the literary set, praising its "magic," "humor," and "rigorous narrative economy." It is, moreover, a literary novel. Along with Joyce, one detects the background presence of Shakespeare, Dickens, Ford Madox Ford and Kafka. But "Frog" is compelling, enormously funny and, after you get accustomed to Mr. Dixon's style, compulsively readable.

Writer and teacher, Howard Tetch -- the youngest son of Simon and Pauline Tetch, husband to Denise, and father to Olivia and Eva -- is the prime mover of the book, and it's mainly through his memories, sensations, impressions and thoughts that we know the other characters. Composed of interrelated, but disjointed, novels, novellas, short stories and snippets, "Frog" is an ambitious work. Its fragmented structure creates an element of surprise, so that the reader is continually swerving off into new directions.

Every memory or thought leads to a new story, stories splinter off into new ones, and the entranced reader is swept along, allowing the tales to carry him wherever they will. The stories jump around in time and perspective, and to further complicate matters, Mr. Dixon portrays multiple versions of the various events, revealing the instability of memory and the permutations of the future. In one segment Howard and Denise are divorced; in others they are happily married; (despite Tolstoy's famous dictum, Mr. Dixon makes a happy family interesting); Howard dies and Denise remarries; Denise dies and Howard remarries. If transcribed for music, this novel could be called "Fate and Variations."

Connecting all these disparate episodes is the recurring theme of loss and the idea that nothing is constant, especially happiness. For Mr. Dixon, the commonplace becomes extraordinary because loss, whether trivial or tragic, is always near at hand. Memories take on a frozen perfection, because they somehow survive among all the debris we collect in our lifetimes.

In "Frog Dies," a daughter holds on to Howard by recalling one flawless moment, an ordinary summer's day, in which the two daughters sit, licking fruit bars while their father sips coffee: "Olivia nestled into him, the girls licking, he occasionally sipping and kissing, all three of them not saying anything and just looking straight out. That's all there is to it. It went on for minutes. She doesn't know why it stayed."

Holding onto objects -- and people -- is at best a slippery business: Pauline Tetch has a disconcerting habit of giving away or throwing out her son's dearest possessions (i.e., a stack of original manuscripts: "Oh, gone, did you need them? I thought they were all published, and since you had them in magazines and books . . . you had no use for them anymore . . . I thought of you but didn't know how to preserve them"); Howard inadvertently destroys a poet's only copy of a poem.

Mr. Dixon's hero spends most of the novel trying to salvage what is lost and hold onto what he has. He refuses to let go when girlfriends break up with him, carrying on obsessive relationships and fantasies for years. When his wife dies, he can't stop staring at her photograph. But is the past irrevocably gone? In "Frog Dies," Howard's daughters are haunted by his death. They search for him in the street, see his face in strangers, try to conjure up his spirit, write about him, paint his portrait, pray for his return.

Tragedy, Mr. Dixon insists, occurs while we are doing other things: swimming, sleeping, driving. For a second, Howard takes his eyes off the wheel to look in the back seat for his work bag: "But the risk he took looking behind the seat while he drove. Pictures what it could be like now, few seconds after. He'd be alive. Denise and the girls would be all over the place, screaming, maybe no screaming, stop."

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