Robbins's short story ``River and Jungle'' (winner of the 1990 Virginia Prize)—about a single mom, her two hipper-than-hip sons, and their elusive dad—is stretched out to fill her first novel, and it's stretched a little thin. Thirty-ish Ruth, who has a career in ``long-term care for the elderly,'' packs up her two boys, Richie and Andrew, and moves to a new town, new job, new apartment whenever her ex-husband, Big Rich, catches up with them. Big Rich is a shadowy type—a kind of ghost dad who hides out, sneaking in to cook lunch for the boys when Ruth is at work. Meanwhile, the boys cope in their own ways. Savvy Richie works on his ``abused-child act'' to get the attention of his teachers, while Andrew pleads for a dog and behaves like one at the mall to shame his mother. Having landed most recently in Richmond, Ruth soon finds evidence that Big Rich is back on the scene. But will they move on again this time? Certain forces seem to be holding them in town, including an emerging friendship with another single mom, Dr. Grace Towle, and her adopted, accident- prone son; and an emerging romance for Ruth, choreographed by her two sons, with Douglas the drug-counselor at school. There are plenty of kooky characters here, plenty of minor twists and turns in the plot. There are also some affecting moments when the contrasts between Ruth's rural childhood and her children's unsettled lives are highlighted. But, mostly, we skim along the surface of all this, distanced by narrator Ruth's manic monologue. She's a fast talker and she's flip. She impresses us, but only with her nerve—we never come close to her heart. Lots of wit, plenty of punch—but if less is more, more can also be less and that, disappointingly, is the equation here.
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