Subtle, tongue-in-cheek novel from Espey, the American writer and linguist whose most recent book, Strong Drink, Strong Language (1990)—much of which appeared in the 1940's in The New Yorker—was a nonfictional take on the boyhood he spent in China Here, the story is set in two separate times—the 1950's and shortly after WW I—with the older story's resolution in the later one. Tom Lloyd heads east from California at the onset of winter, to Wyoming and Iowa, on a mission to resolve old family matters. His eccentric parents act as if a drive across the country is going into combat, and wonder whether Tom, who is 37, can manage it. Tom is an engaging narrator, the son of retired Presbyterian missionaries to Shanghai, and the reminiscences of China are rich here. But the novel's charm comes from this ``fine family'' he's part of, now fallen on hard times through the misadventures of a mysterious grandfather. Espey is all attitude, genteel distance. Tom himself, though incomparably shrewd about emotions and motivations, seems barely able to operate a car, ``turning on the motor'' rather than starting the engine, and floundering about with bemused gas-station attendants as he crosses the country. When the cold settles, he engages in his secret, preacher kid's vice of swilling from flasks of Teacher's. But, with a certain wry resolve, he accomplishes his mission. We learn that the Lloyds were not so well regarded in Dalton, Iowa, because of their hifalutin ways. When they returned to Shanghai, some thought it good riddance. Tom meets an adolescent flame (old hurts are healed), and he enacts a sort of revenge upon a wrong done him—and the family—in boyhood. Then he's on his way again, Teacher's in hand. Flawlessly executed, whimsical, and odd—rather like Glenway Wescott but without his dark heart.
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