A lawyer left at sea by his wife's ghost

July 13, 1993|By Maude McDaniel | Maude McDaniel,Contributing Writer

C. S. Lewis once wrote, in effect, that if you're going to see ghosts, you'd better believe in them. Terry Seward did, but he didn't (perhaps) in this capricious, unsettling novel.

A slight, 38-year-old communications lawyer in a Washington firm, Terry is generous, good-humored, "a very regular guy." Picking up the pieces of his wrecked life after his wife's accidental death by drowning, he's startled a year later in a Virginia vacation cabin to see "Betsy herself, on the threshold of the dark . . . while the lights go humming-humming," chanting "softly but unmistakably 'Terry, Terry, no one's fault.' "

Understandably, his life is never quite the same again.

With the family too far away or too distracted to help, and colleagues put off by such silly questions as "What is reality?" Terry turns to Kevin Kopp, his nerdy, embarrassing, freshman roommate at Princeton 20 years before, now evolved into a successful pet-shop entrepreneur. Old Squirrely's "oddball mixture of eccentricity, scorn, clumsiness, aggression, insight" offers more welcome to Terry than his lawyer-friend Adam's doggedly superficial approach to life.

For life is what it's all about, and how Terry's is to accommodate his "mystical experience." The re- acquainted friends get nowhere in their endless examination and analysis. In desperation, a "would-be pilgrim without a destination," Terry takes off two months from work to research the life of the mind" and hallucinations.

His consultation with an Icelandic expert on otherworldly appearance is irrelevantly amusing, fascinating (if the cited facts are not fiction) and, indeed, wise.

To Terry's plea that "this won't fit in my life," Tryggvi Hannibalssohn responds that, if Terry does not wish to become religious (as, he says, 80 percent of those "who have some sort of mystical experience are . . . or become"), then forget it. "Life itself is a miracle -- is it not -- . . . but so what? So what? The people find a way of ignoring miracles, don't they? They find a way of going on with their lives all the same. As you will do, my friend."

Advice, as it turns out, Terry is unwilling or unable to accept. His life increasingly falls apart, and ultimately it seems likely that Seward is moving seaward indeed, beyond the breakers into the uncharted depths of some sort of madness.

Mr. Leithauser records all of this nimbly, with comic finesse, an appropriate workaday style for the prosaic parts and a reach poetic enough for the others. He's good at capturing the complexity of relationships between human beings who like or love each other: Terry; his very different friends; his parents; his sister; his niece. (At his niece's wedding, Terry feels "a wild, buoyant sort of love" for his sister, "something as light on its feet as a flat stone sent skipping across a smooth body of water -- out toward this middle-aged woman in a smudged, unbecoming green dress").

The intersections between "the mundane and the lunatic," too, are cleverly limned with erratic tenses; a format made up of four long chapters, introduced by "Horizontal Chitchats," and a whole host of iconic elements, ranging from the high vaulting of Terry's youth, through beards and uncaring Greek gods, to fish aquariums.

Still, Mr. Leithauser, author of two previous novels ("Equal Distance" and "Hence") and several volumes of poetry, seems more in control of his human characters than his symbols, which tend to run off in all directions. Also, some gambits never develop, such as the female lawyer Allie; a mysterious phone call, and the character of Betsy herself.

Positioning a mystical experience front and center in this life of an ordinary 1990s guy raises spiritual questions the author occasionally begs. It's not clear whether he intended to, but in the end he seems to come down on the side of the angels. The man who cannot finally fit the mystical into his life may indeed end up all at sea, in the wake of a ghost he cannot believe in.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Seaward"

Author: Brad Leithauser

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 416 pages, $23

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