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BOOKS: PAPA WAS A GAZILLIONAIRE

3 minute read
Martha Duffy

It’s hard to write a novel about a great man, that larger-than-life figure who bestrides the story and manipulates action. The certitude of Dickens or Tolstoy, who peopled their worlds like gods, is denied to 20th century writers who must cope with ironies and layers of deconstruction (one strategy is to distance the reader from the hero and keep him a mystery, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby). So pity Mona Simpson, a talented young novelist (Anywhere but Here) whose new book, A Regular Guy (Knopf; 372 pages; $25), begins with this sentence: “He was a man too busy to flush toilets.” Does any superman survive that? It’s not that this is a scatological work or a racy read about a rich scientist-businessman. Instead, it is an earnest attempt by a talented writer to redraw the profile of the typical macho American giant to conform to more feminist and environmental ideals. In this, Simpson seems to be invading territory that Jane Smiley opened in A Thousand Acres.

Tom Owens, the protagonist of A Regular Guy, is an Oregon geneticist-tycoon vaguely modeled on Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (the author’s brother). As a student he has had an affair with Mary, an earthbound girl, who becomes pregnant. In the book’s signal exchange Tom tells her, “I can’t have a baby now, Mare. I’ve just started something. I’ve got to give it time.” Of course, Mary has just started something too, and that will be her destiny.

While Tom parlays a bright lab notion into a megafortune and toys with entering presidential politics, his little family remains adrift. Mary, in a singular–and unlikely–act of daring, downsizes the controls of an old truck and teaches her daughter Jane, now 10, how to drive it, an effort that takes months. Finally, however, the terrified kid manages to tool across the mountains–howling Hiawatha as she goes–to visit her father. Though Owens makes a pro forma denial of paternity, he actually sends for Jane’s mother and salts the pair away in a nearby cabin. Now they are at least some part of his life.

And so it goes. The best and most vivid part of the book is its 75-page-long beginning, which sets up an ultimately flaccid, indistinct narrative. Simpson can be a strong, sinewy writer, and it may be that this novel, her third, is simply a misstep. Perhaps she has gone to the well once too often: A Regular Guy has the same theme as much of her earlier work–a child searching for a lost father–and it lacks the energy and rude gusto of Anywhere but Here. As for Owens, he loses his company, but in the end he is doing just fine on a diet of nuts, fruits and cauliflower, a gentler superman for the ’90s.

–By Martha Duffy

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