Learning Just How Plain Language and Love Have to Be

The Half-Life of Happiness , by John Casey. Alfred A. Knopf, 513 pages, $25.

In one of his books on writing, John Gardner tells of the terrible moment of insight and self-loathing in which he realized that the long-cultivated but now instinctive practice of his craft had cut him off from ordinary feeling. He had come upon a car accident while driving and had rushed to help. Struggling to pull a pregnant woman from the wreckage, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking, “I must remember this,” while observing the fresh, puffy edges of her wounds and the precise way the blood pumped out.

This detachment is also the curse of Mike Reardon and his family in John Casey’s penetrating new novel, The Half-Life of Happiness . The Reardons are bright, insightful people whose gift for language is a kind of Midas touch-converting every meaningful event or emotion into a joke, cliché or cocktail-party anecdote. Mike is a liberal small-town lawyer whose 12-year marriage to his wife, Joss, has quietly expired. They seem not to have mentioned their disaffection to one another, but by the time the novel opens, their only shared interests are their small daughters, Edith and Nora, and their intimate friends, each as relentlessly witty as the Reardons. By inviting these friends to spend every evening with them, playing games and spinning verbal conceits, Mike and Joss manage to fill the hours in which they might otherwise have to face each other alone. In company, Mike can deflect Joss’ flashes of drunken rage, and Joss can endure Mike’s long, preening stories and his crushing precision. Mr. Casey gives his readers no hope for the Reardon marriage, but he does offer a ravishing death blow in the form of Bonnie One, a sweet-talking Southern sorceress who enters the circle of friends and carries off Joss.

We are not meant to like Bonnie One. In a novel that evokes our uneasy admiration for so many unkind, ungenerous comments, it may be essential to have a few fixed stars in the moral firmament. We first meet Bonnie masquerading as a nun at a party, where she happens to eavesdrop on a mild infidelity of Mike’s. She soon distracts him with her own, more potent charms. We know Bonnie One is bad because she continues to tease and flirt with Mike over the dinner table even when she has spent the afternoon under his wife’s skirt. Mike and Joss may be brutal and selfish, we are led to feel, but they are not dishonest. And it is a household rule, of sorts, that they turn their merciless high beams on themselves as often as on each other: “Joss recognized that her behavior toward Mike alternated between hostility and penance. She couldn’t help it. Ill temper seemed the only form of honesty she was now capable of. But then an urge to make one of Mike’s favorite meals would come on her-she wasn’t penitential, but she found penance stabilizing.” When Bonnie One tries to end an argument with Joss by bleating, “I just love you so!” it as if she has flashed a glowing pitchfork at the readers.

Irony has somehow overtaken Mike and Joss like an ornamental plant, innocently allowed to take root, that turns out to be tougher than ivy. Movie clichés spring so easily to Joss’ mind, for instance, that she begins to collect them, keeping a card file for items like, “Aw, ya big lug, can’t you see I’m just crazy about you?” After a while, she finds almost no occasion in which a movie cliché cannot neatly substitute for ordinary speech. Tyler, Bonnie One’s boyfriend, has a competing plan to collect “plain everyday phrases,” like “You’re on your own,” or “Nobody told me,” responses as automatic as Joss’ movie clichés, but less distancing. Mike insists that in court, he speaks in plain everyday phrases. Later, when he runs for Congress, he will learn just how plain his phrases have to be.

Although all the friends talk hard, Joss, especially, is at the mercy of her untamed tongue. At one point during a marriage counseling session, she has to clap her hands over her mouth. “Are you upset about your drinking?” the counselor asks, “‘Cause sometimes being funny is a sort of defense.” Joss struggles to answer plainly: “Drinking. Yes. Sometimes I have a little wine, no problem. Other times, kuhplow. Heap big trouble. Paleface give firewater to Indian.” The counselor suggests a detox program, the fuel for one last crack: “I thought being a drunk means never having to say you’re sober.”

But Mike, too, lags behind his own glittering gab, even when he carefully chooses those everyday phrases. He cannot help but assess his performance as a speaker. Telling the “whole Joss story” to a mutual friend, he “didn’t present it as if to a jury, but, rather, as if to a partners’ meeting, that is, without any leaning one way or the other, just the facts and a few spare comments about what issues might prove to be the main areas of contention. No emotional adjectives, no metaphors of grief or loneliness.” His friend responded with feeling, bringing her hand to his cheek. “One part of him soaked up her sweet comforting,” he observed, but another part of him “registered with an alarmingly cool alertness that this sad story was more affecting when told with understatement, with a slight hint of the effort it cost him to be calmly objective.”

Not only words, but art, movies, dreams and history encroach on the real life of the Reardons and their friends. Even their professions are telling. So many of them are performers of one sort of another. Joss makes short films. Her youngest daughter Nora will become a soap opera actress. Edith will become a teacher but also, it is suggested, a writer. Mike’s girlfriend, Bonnie Two, is a psychologist who writes and performs country-and-western songs, those rich repositories of cliché. Later, when Mike has thrown her over, she adds only a phrase or two to her repertoire and becomes an evangelist preacher. Mike tries to leave law for politics and fails, partly because he tries to remain honest. He is too good, perhaps, for politics. After the disastrous campaign, he becomes a judge.

It is a mark of Mr. Casey’s great skill that his characters wriggle free from even his best metaphors. Readers may remember his celebrated second novel, the 1989 National Book Award winner, Spartina , which dared to evoke the shade of Melville and risked crushing his main character, a fisherman and boat builder, under the keel of an immense literary allusion. His first novel, American Romance (1977), was also critically acclaimed.

The bulk of the narrative of this latest novel is set in the 1970’s, for no particular reason, it seems, than to permit the action to be refracted through memory-the ultimate distancing device-and commented on by an adult Edith Reardon, who has inherited the cruel combination of her father’s long memory and her mother’s lacerating anger. At one point, Edith recounts a series of public blunders her father made in the months after Joss left him and reflects that while some embarrassments fade, the embarrassments she felt for him that year had “the half-life of plutonium.” On the long road trip that closes the novel, her sister Nora explains the difference in staging pathos and comedy, trying to get Edith to look more gently at their chaotic past: “See it at a distance and light it for comedy.”

Mr. Casey’s prose shuttles smoothly between American colloquialism, lyrical exactitude and the lightning wit of the Reardons at home. It cannot help but suggest the novelist’s own uneasy regard for his considerable gifts.

Learning Just How Plain Language and Love Have to Be