Steve Lopez goes down to the shore

May 19, 2002|By Dan Fesperman | By Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

In the Clear, by Steve Lopez. Harcourt. 344 pages. $25.

With his third novel, In the Clear, Steve Lopez widens his turf, traveling from the mean streets and boss politics of Philadelphia to the city's favorite summer getaway, the Jersey shore. It is a pleasant ride, and he hasn't forgotten to take along any of the essentials that gave his earlier books their distinctive feel.

Doing this sort of job well requires a writer to render his surroundings as faithfully as a landscape painter, only instead of trying to capture light he is collecting attitude and language, sound and smell, all plotted to the quirky biorhythms of his characters.

Thus we learn that along Jersey's teeming boardwalked strand, at least one town is stubbornly clinging to the past, even as business fades and tourists dwindle. That would be Harbor Light, pop. 4,500--- no boardwalk and no mini-golf, and still cut off from the high-roller bustle of Atlantic City by an inlet that the locals refuse to bridge.

For lack of a better label, Lopez is a crime novelist, so there is of course trouble in this down-at-the-heels paradise. The man who must deal with it is Albert LaRosa, Harbor Light's one-man police force, a one-time Philadelphia cop still trying to live down a single night of violence from his past. In doing so, he has become an urbanized Andy Griffith, smoothing over troubles with folksiness rather than firearms, having learned to play it safe both on the streets and in life as he coasts toward retirement.

Trouble arrives in the form of casino magnate Oscar Price, who not only wants to build a huge casino and bridge the town to Atlantic City, he also has the political muscle to pull it off. It's the locals he needs to win over, so he offers LaRosa the job, dangling a big salary that seems like just the ticket to a carefree future. LaRosa bites, only to find himself up against his father, his girlfriend and half his neighbors in a battle than soon turns ugly -- firebombs and death threats, stray gunshots and dead-of-night explosions.

Effectively rendering this kind of locale generally requires an understated touch and a well-drawn cast, and for the most part, Lopez gets it right. His prose ambles comfortably through the salt breeze with a tone hovering between the wiseacre laugh track of Carl Hiaasen and the father-son banter of Richard Russo -- not quite as surefooted as the former or as deep as the latter, but holding his own in the middle.

It is in resolving the various moral dilemmas facing his characters that Lopez stumbles a bit. In confronting the turmoil of Harbor Light, LaRosa must rethink his past, and his solution to it all becomes a case study in the morality of punishment -- not as it is spelled out in law books, but as it is charted in the murkier channels of the human heart.

While his solution works well enough in tying up the loose ends of the plot, it may well leave some readers uneasy in the wake of Sept. 11. That's a shame, because Lopez almost certainly wrote In the Clear well before that date. But deeds which might have previously come across as oversized pranks gone awry seem more like dimestore-variety terrorism in this suddenly more skittish age. The result is an oddly disturbing closing note to an otherwise pleasant summer melody.

Dan Fesperman, a Sun reporter on leave, covered the war in Bosnia for The Sun from 1993 to 1996 while posted to the Berlin bureau. His first book, Lie in the Dark, set in Sarajevo, was published by Soho Press. He is now at work on a second book and contemplating a third.

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