For most of this mainly droll but sometimes just quippish novel, a meditation on the modern American family, a father-and-son reunion seems only a page away. Clyde, a fallen academic who now teaches self-improving singles at the Learning Place in Cambridge, Mass., inches toward reconciliation with his distant, elderly dad. His friend Ben, the wise adolescent son of a rootless novelist, waits for a family friend to admit he is Ben's father. Blindly, the reader waits for the few words of acknowledgment needed to tap the flow of warmth and coziness we connect with family ties.
But McCauley's moving novel is more about blockages than breakthroughs. In the style of a standup comic who masks pain with rapid-fire wit, he presents a cast of clever underachievers who struggle to unravel the true reasons from the mere excuses that have kept them from finishing their dissertations, surviving bad love affairs or just settling down. Some of them figure it out, but it's the painful conclusions Clyde and Ben reach about a father's grudging stamp of approval that make this read more bitter than sweet. (Simon & Schuster, $22)