Mona Simpson's life without father

November 10, 1996|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | Lisa Schwarzbaum,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"A Regular Guy," by Mona Simpson. Knopf. 336 pages $25

Mona Simpson's heart has belonged to Daddy-who's-AWOL for three novels now, and she's still trying to get a handle on what the fatherhood deal is all about for any daughter whose childhood mantra is "Where's Poppa?"

Ten years ago in her terrific, invigorating fiction debut, "Anywhere but Here," Simpson approached the story as life-without-father, focusing on the relationship between a memorable mother and a daughter rattling around Los Angeles, bound tightly together by male absence Told in first person, by the daughter primarily, the book hit the spot because the language is crisp and piquant, the dialogue nails the syncopated rhythms of real family discourse, and the observations are fresh and ungooey.

Four years ago, in "The Lost Father," another first-person fiction, the author (whose books win prizes, who has taught at Bard College and who now divides her time between New York and Los Angeles) sent the grown-up child directly out to find the parent.

In "A Regular Guy," Simpson once again dispatches a girl (this time called Jane) to seek out the man who abandoned her mother and her young self, but this time the girl, who is 10 years old when the story begins, is sent out by her loosey-goosey New Age mother, Mary, to find Dad - and she does. His name is Tom Owens, everyone calls him only by his last name, like he's a car brand, or The Donald.

He's a rich brilliant eccentric Northern California geneticist-biotech business tycoon (not for nothing is computer millionaire Steve Jobs the author's half-brother.) And he installs his illegitimate daughter and mother in a nearby house while he wafts around, alternately making piles dough while doing genius work, and frustrating his family, friends and girlfriend by his maddening lack of engagement.

The extraordinary late British television writer Dennis Potter used to describe his creative territory as a little patch of land to be tilled and retilled. If that's the case, then Simpson, who has staked out rich territory in the bonds between daughter and father, has come up nutrient deficient in this third thin harvest.

Maneuvering self-consciously quirky characters around in a relatively straightforward third-person narrative, she relies on precious details: "Owens never took patent medicines and in the realm of vitamins he believed only in metals, particularly zinc." And cute observations that shrivel under scrutiny: "Jane grew up believing that her father could have been governor if she hadn't stole his shoes.."

By the end of "A Regular Guy," mother, father, daughter and assorted co-stars have affected a kind of communal stability. Yet, for all the novelistic doodads loaded onto the players, none comes alive. The preternaturally precocious Jane (who, at 10, drives alone to find Pops) is more freak than everygirl. Mary is more dingbat than free spirit. The inhabitants of this Silicon Valley-like setting appear to be breathing something other than oxygen. And Owens, whose idea of goodness was so fragile it could be corrupted by something as natural as a breeze" is so wifty he blows away. This may be the legacy of a lost father. But more likely, I suspect, it's only the momentary stumbling of a very talented writer with plenty of harvesting still ahead.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a writer-at-large and movie critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News and had worked for the Boston Globe and Real Paper. A regular contributor to national magazines, she is writing a book about the spiritual life of Hollywood for Pocket Books.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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