EQUAL DISTANCE by Brad Leithauser


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Danny Ott, 23, on leave from Harvard Law School and a Wall-Street-firm internship, goes to Kyoto, Japan--to do research with a Japanese law professor, Prof. Umeda. But Kyoto is bewildering: neon-shot, fast-fed, publically bathed. So Danny feels lucky when he happens to meet Greg Blaising, a slightly older American in the last stages of a trust-funded voyage of global self-discovery; Greg, though sometimes a bit much, is compulsively witty and fiercely marginal, with offbeat tastes and knowledgeable angles on Kyoto that are very entertaining to the more stolid Danny. Then into Danny's life comes yet another American: Cartie--living alone and, like Greg, supported financially by her parents while she attempts to forget a painful broken engagement. And Danny's luck holds as Carrie picks him, rather than Greg, to be her lover. Unfortunately, however, Leithauser barely sharpens any of the angles of this potential triangle. In fact, though individual moments are acutely, meticulously described throughout the novel, the characterizations remain oddly vague--while any narrative drive is episodic at best: Danny's parents, divorcing, come to visit separately; there are some gently comic scenes of anxious Japanese hospitality; Danny's sex life is randomly providential in a convincing, real-life way. And far too often first-novelist Leithauser seems content to beef up Danny's rather placid ""adventures"" in a foreign land with precious prose that's sometimes consciously out-of-synch with the subject at hand. (""There is nowhere to step that does not disturb the marvelous murmurous inbred bed of organic laminae--brown leaves and the ribs of ferns, stems and husks and follicles, needles and fur, all in the April sun sleeping, steeping toward spring's multiplex explosion."") In Leithauser's poetry (Hundreds of Fireflies, 1982), this genteel, minutely refined approach--endowing minor matters with apparent significance through layers of delicate language--is occasionally effective. A similar approach is frequently mesmerizing in the fiction of John Cagey. But Leithauser lacks the passion and emotional candor that give Casey's elegant narrations a strong undertow--and this rarified debut, with pleasantly dull Danny at the center, is more a series of finely written scenes and set-pieces than a fully realized novel.

Pub Date: Jan. 3rd, 1984
Publisher: Knopf