February 21, 2008


Now You See Him. By Eli Gottlieb. Morrow. $22.95.

Baby Jack. By Frank Schaeffer. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $15.

      An old TV series called Naked City always began with an announcer intoning, portentously, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” The idea was that the show stripped away the veneer of civilized behavior that usually conceals the inner workings of individuals and families, revealing the raw truth beneath – a modern update of what novelists have done for centuries and, on the basis of these two books and many others, still do.

      Now You See Him is about two failed relationships and their interconnection. The more dramatic of the two is between writer Rob Castor and his girlfriend, Kate, also a writer. The story of these two is familiar in many ways – early success for Rob followed by obscurity, while Kate’s reputation grows until Rob finds it intolerable. What is dramatic is the action Rob takes: cold-bloodedly killing Kate and then returning to his home town to commit suicide. This is not an entirely believable scenario, even within the bounds of fiction: an execution-style killing followed by fleeing home to kill oneself there rather than on the scene? Eli Gottlieb is a good enough stylist to pull readers along despite this and other plot holes, but not good enough to conceal the fact that the emotional intensity of the Rob-Kate relationship seems plastered on rather than integral to the characters. The marriage of the book’s narrator, Nick Framingham, and his wife, Lucy, is better crafted. Theirs is a fairly traditional 10-year-long arrangement, held together as much by their children as by a continuing adult connection. The marriage, Nick writes, “has been a steady falling away from a dream of undivided light.” In childhood, Rob was Nick’s best friend, and Nick drifts farther from his adult self and from Lucy as he tries to fathom what went wrong in the Rob-Kate relationship. He resumes a prior relationship with Rob’s sister, Belinda, as he pieces together details of Rob’s life that will eventually lead to a surprise revelation (perhaps not much of a surprise to readers, though). Although Now You See Him is well written, it has only a minimal amount to offer beyond style: Nick is never really an engaging character, and although the ending (in which his marriage is irretrievably broken – a revelation that is not a spoiler, since it is obvious where things are going from about page 6) tries for pathos, it is hard to escape the notion that Nick had it coming; that he brought it all on himself.

      In a sense, Jack Ogden brought it all on himself, too. In Baby Jack, he is the youngest child of an acclaimed painter, Todd Ogden, and the two have always been very close. Or so Todd thought until Jack decided to join the Marines instead of going to college. Todd, not understanding why Jack is doing this, is furious, and rejects both Jack and Jack’s girlfriend, Jessica. Then, two weeks after deployment, Jack is killed in action – leaving behind a grieving family that still cannot figure out the reasons behind his sacrifice, and a girlfriend carrying his unborn child. That child is the Baby Jack of the title, through whom Frank Schaeffer weaves an effective narrative while also straining credulity almost to the breaking point, if not beyond. Schaeffer has dead Jack inhabiting his baby son’s body: “Baby Jack is on his changing table. Jessica is talking to us. My son is so beautiful. I wish I could hold him. …I wish I could just once see him catch sight of me.” This supernatural twist to a story of the families left behind when someone in the military dies gives the all-too-real tale of sacrifice and wrenched lives a surreal glaze. The back-and-forth pace of the narration adds to it, as we flash back to Jack’s basic training, read his letters and those of the grief-stricken Todd, then encounter Jessica trying to deal with being a single mother living with her parents. Schaeffer makes the book fuller rather than choppier with this technique, also expanding Jack’s story to take in the 30-year marriage of Todd and Sarah, which only seems successful. There is, in truth, a little too much to take in here, as Baby Jack constantly pushes the reader to refocus, to empathize deeply with one character, then the next, then the next. The result is a powerful but emotionally draining book whose final affirmation of family love – whatever that means to different family members – ties things up satisfactorily, if a little too neatly.

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