Plot questions remain even after 'Gates' closed

January 08, 1995|By Anne Whitehouse

Primo Thomas, the protagonist of Chuck Wachtel's second novel, is both passive and pedantic. A shrewd lover, Angelita Lopez, refers to him as "a closed fist," which, she explains, "can mean brave, but it can also mean frightened." His folksy Aunt Olivia accuses him of being isolated from other people and at the same time trying -- and not succeeding -- to control the world around him. Primo himself claims, "If you don't possess much, you don't lose much."

As the novel begins, Primo, 36, has returned from Massachusetts to his Lower East Side neighborhood, where he teaches English as a second language in a community school. The time is 1987. The son of a black physician father and an Italian mother, Primo has grown up within the black community and thinks of himself as a quintessential outsider in American society. The novel follows the next nine months of his life, as he drifts in and out of relationships with three different women.

The central event of the novel is Primo's tour of Nicaragua with a teachers' delegation in January 1988, during the contra war against the Sandinista regime. Typically, Primo has not decided go to Nicaragua on his own; his friend Manny Glass has signed him up.

Manny is a provocateur -- combative, inflammatory, profane. He specializes in making inappropriate comments and picking fights. He is writing a bad political novel about which we learn all too much. At first it seems that Primo is a contrast to his friend, that his behavior is more measured and rational. But, in fact, Primo is a more pallid version of Manny, less exuberant but also prone to fly into rages and seek impulsive solutions that end up making bad situations worse.

Several months after his return to New York, when he learns that his Nicaraguan lover Angelita has been killed in a contra attack, Primo goes on a rampage of public rage and petty vandalism. He experiences his fury as a transcendent, healing force:

"In the course of the night, for a few moments, he had achieved a consciousness so transformed, so angry, so fractured that he could travel inside of himself, slip between the broken sensations of his recent life and cross the endless space to a

distant corner of memory, so distant the part of himself residing there never knew Angelita had ever existed. There were just a few such moments. And they were brief ones."

Indignant about the working conditions in a toy factory where his student and new lover Carolina labors, Primo stupidly confronts the management head-on. As a result, he and Carolina are stalked and attacked. It seems that Primo, angry and guilty about Angelita's death, is driven to make himself suffer to prove that he had been worthy of her love.

In addition to Angelita and Carolina, Primo is involved with Pamela, his ex-wife Mariah's girlfriend. All of these women, including Mariah, resemble each other; they are like reflections of the same woman -- independent, assured, clever and attractive. They seem remarkably tolerant of Primo's noncommittal behavior. Contributing to the sense of similarity is Mr. Wachtel's tendency to present Primo's involvements with women as faits accomplis. In the cases of Pamela and Carolina, a first dinner date leads to sex.

Mr. Wachtel's characters have a habit of telling each other plots -- from movies, from popular television shows, and of course from Manny's unpublished novel. These discussions quickly become tedious, functioning as dull filler in a book that doesn't need it. In addition, the violent events that culminate the novel seem forced. It's hard to know what to make of Primo's final epiphany as he is convalescing: "When his body heals, his life will seem pretty much the same. . . . But a word he has carried around inside himself his whole life has finally spoken itself."

What is this word? Love? Responsibility? Self-knowledge? Is Primo's revelation his resemblance to his lost father? Mr. Wachtel remains mute. In spite of its sound and fury, the novel has an episodic, patched-together quality, and Primo's vague epiphany seems unsupported by the events that lead to it.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "The Gates"

Author: Chuck Wachtel

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 403 pages, $23.95

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