Picks and Pans Review: The Boys and Their Baby

updated 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Larry Wolff

There's a little romance, a little mystery, a little sex—both hetero- and homosexual—and a lot of distinctly drawn, engaging characters. Mostly, however, this is a novel in stubborn pursuit of a hopelessly unanswerable question: Why can't life proceed in a more orderly fashion? The central character, Adam Berg, has just relocated from Boston to San Francisco, where he moves in with his old college roommate, Huck, and takes a job teaching English at a private high school. Adam's mother is a Yale English professor who specializes in analyzing the structure of classic novels, and he himself is a creature of order. So it baffles him that Huck has an infant son, Christopher, but no apparent mate. He can't figure out whether the glamorous Lucille, a cabaret singer, is Huck's lover, or whether Huck is gay and actually sleeping with Wayne, a forlorn young man from Oklahoma. Worse, Adam starts having trouble figuring out his own place in all of this. Is he Huck's friend? A potential lover? An intermediary? Finally he starts to long for the days when he used to work as a telephone repairman: "I would just climb up to the top of a pole, straighten out some wires, and all the connections would come clear. Now I run my mind over and over the tangles without ever seeing my way out of the mess." Wolff, who is a Boston College history professor and has written two books of nonfiction (one was The Vatican and Poland in the Age of Partitions), lives with science writer Perri Klass and has a 4-year-old son, Benjamin, who has obviously taught him a thing or two. The baby Christopher serves, in his innocence and openness to the world around him, as a pivotal character in the novel. His unrestrained curiosity all but points an arrow at Adam's multiple fears and inhibitions. Adam wants rules; Christopher just wants experiences. Wolff deftly camouflages this meditation on the responsibilities of becoming a grownup, using an involving tale in which the baby's mother reappears, fresh from a Los Angeles mental institution. Huck too turns out to be much less of an emotional cavalier than he seems, feeling guilty in several directions at once. Both the storytelling and the philosophical questions it raises are honest and unpretentious. This novel makes a reader care not just what happens, but why. (Knopf, $17.95)

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