A compelling, often uncomfortable, conversation

October 24, 2004|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

Old Friends by Stephen Dixon. Melville House. 220 pages. $22.95.

Prolific and daring, curmudgeonly and coy, Stephen Dixon breaks almost every revered writing rule -- over and over, because he can. Everybody knows, for example, that a single paragraph extended across several pages will feel, to many readers, like an insurmountable wall, an unnecessary challenge; Dixon, it seems, has a penchant for such walls. Everybody knows, likewise, that something is supposed to happen in a novel -- that the minutiae and sometimes vulgarity of domestic life are not the stuff of entertainment; ask Dixon if he cares. Ask Dixon, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, whether his characters earn readers' empathy. Ask him if redemption matters. Ask him, or better yet (I suspect), read him. Read his newest novel, Old Friends.

It's not as sweet as the Simon and Gar-funkel tune. It won't leave you uplifted. It doesn't relieve your eye when your eye wants relief, and you can't thumb ahead to the next chapter, because, well, lo and behold, Old Friends is not divided into chapters. It's a book (I intentionally do not choose the term story) that begins in the middle of a conversation and keeps on going, Energizer-bunny-style, straight through that conversation. The protagonists (I wouldn't call Dixon's Irv and Leonard something as grand as heroes) are middling male writers who find each other, talk to each other, moan and gripe and mostly, if stumblingly, understand each other. Even when Leonard gets sick and cannot speak on the phone, even when Irv is consumed with the caretaking of his disabled wife, even when distance keeps them physically apart, the conversation continues to unfold.

They speak of divorce and marriage, of teaching and envy, of deterioration and fear, of clinical trials and placebos, of the relative ethics of using loved ones as the fodder for myriad fiction projects. They speak through Leonard's second wife, when they have to, and they give each other room, when they have to, and Leonard will forget and Irv will get longwinded and they will accuse each other and then move forward, and so it goes between them.

It may sound as if I were put off by Old Friends, but the truth is I read it straight through. I read it straight through, and with accumulating admiration for all that Dixon brilliantly achieves as he works outside convention. All the effluvia of domestic life is relevant, as it turns out, to character. Self-absorption, it further seems, is countered by simple, common questions; Old Friends is full of the right questions.

And if it looks at first as if Dixon were writing a trivia-laden, strictly chronological, clogged-beyond-belief book, you realize pretty quickly that none of his small stuff is mere small stuff, that none of the apparent clog is random, and that Dixon is actually masterful with time -- a writer who can turn the clock abruptly forward, then step back, hour by hour. I wanted a happier ending for Old Friends, which means that Dixon made me care. I wanted the conversation to keep going, despite the walls of paragraphs. Old Friends isn't easy, and it isn't pretty either. But it's a tour de force by one of the most courageous writers of our day.

Kephart is the award-winning author of four memoirs. Her fifth book, Ghosts in the Garden, is due out in March.

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