Writer won't toy with this Atticus A long road: A character, carrying a book, steps confidently out of Ron Hansen's mind after 13 years.

March 07, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

When Atticus Cody first came to stay in Ron Hansen's imagination, the character did not yet have a troubled son, a dead wife, or much of a story to tell. It was 1983 and all Mr. Hansen had was a brief description of a man listening to the radio at day's end.

A lot happens in 13 years. In 1991, Mr. Hansen published a slender novel about a young novitiate, "Mariette in Ecstasy," ZTC which received glowing reviews, sold surprisingly well and was made into a movie, to be released this year.

But Atticus never went away, hanging on to become the title character of Mr. Hansen's latest novel, in which a 67-year-old Colorado man goes to Mexico after his son commits suicide in a town called Resurrection.

The name is just one measure of Mr. Hansen's confidence in his craft. You have to be confident to choose "Resurrection" as the literal setting of a prodigal son story.

"It was kind of oh-what-the-hell," Mr. Hansen says. "I like showing people exactly where I got my ideas."

To that end, he signals to the reader not only the inspiration for his character's name ("To Kill a Mockingbird"), but an array of literary influences ranging from Malcolm Lowry to Gerard Manley Hopkins and "Huckleberry Finn."

A tall, blond man dressed all in black, Mr. Hansen is in a Washington hotel room, which he wryly notes has begun to resemble a Marx Brothers movie. People keep coming and going, the phone keeps ringing.

But he seems happy and relaxed, and why not? One of those phone calls has just brought word that "Atticus" (HarperCollins) is No. 6 on San Francisco's regional best-seller list. The New York Times says it "threatens to give didacticism a good name." There have been worse Monday mornings.

Mr. Hansen has worked long and steadily for the recognition of the past few years. Born 48 years ago in Omaha, Neb., eight minutes after his identical twin, Rob, he decided as a teen-ager he wanted to be a writer. Methodically, he has pursued the degrees, fellowships and teaching jobs that make a writing life possible.

After serving in the Army, he used the GI Bill to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop, where his first workshop leader was the pre-Garp John Irving. Mr. Hansen ended up as the Irving sons' live-in baby sitter. (He also would later work as a baby sitter for Esquire fiction editor Gordon Lish, who happens to have a son named Atticus.)

He was a college textbook salesman when he decided to write a western novel, "Desperadoes," calculating that working in a genre improved the odds of getting published. Another western followed, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," then "Nebraska," a prize-winning collection of short stories, and a children's book.

With "Atticus," Mr. Hansen found himself in position to subvert a genre. Although a fan of mystery fiction, he worked against the form's conventions, exploring a world that becomes increasingly random with each discovery.

"No one is to blame," states the suicide note that Atticus' son Scott leaves behind.

But his grieving father cannot accept that philosophy. He presses on, looking for reasons and explanations.

"I decided it would be as close to real life as possible, which involves implausibilities," Mr. Hansen says. That decision has bothered some critics of the book, although reviews have been generally positive.

Mr. Hansen has said that "Atticus" allowed him to explore his own lawless instincts. Or, as a character tells Atticus: "You're the formidable father figure he idolized and struggled not to become, and he's who you'd be if you didn't have all your good habits and boundaries and rules."

Mr. Hansen owns up to being disciplined and ambitious, but says he still flirts with a darker side. "I've had those wild oats. I still do the lamp shade-on-the-head routine."

In fact, "Atticus" has its moments of wry humor, but overall it is a somber story, one that believes not only in resurrection, but redemption and forgiveness. It is in sync with the world view of this "non-lapsed" Catholic, as Mr. Hansen describes himself, who avowedly does not believe no one is to blame.

He is now working on a memoir about twins, a subject in which he has a lifelong interest. A novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins and his friend, Robert Bridges, also is a possibility.

The phone again. The French publishers, who attach no meaning to "Atticus," have suggested a different title for the book when it appears there: "Son of Ashes."

Mr. Hansen shrugs bemusedly. He had wanted "The Lost Son," but that incurred copyright problems. So "Son of Ashes" it is.

There have been worse Monday mornings.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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