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Wain's adult fiction has often featured an excess of themes and gimmicks, a shortage of genuine feeling; and so it is with his first novel for young readers--a belabored epiphany which remains largely unaffecting despite its potent premise. Clare, the 13-year-old sister of the young British narrator, 17-year-old Paul Waterford, has been killed in a Lisbon plane-crash, along with dozens of schoolmates. So, together with his parents (pathetic ""him,"" alcoholic ""her""), Paul flies to Lisbon for a memorial service--coolly observing the other grieving/guilty parents, scornfully reviewing the failings of his own father and mother. (""What a waste they are, a waste of two human beings who might have come to something. . . All these grown-ups, all running away into one kind of shelter or another."") And, in alternating mini-chapters, Paul addresses the dead Clare, sharing his secret plans for the ""World Free Zone,"" a commune-like Utopia which he intends to establish--with no private property, no marriage, people ""free to develop as human beings."" So, on the evening after the service, as a ""learning"" experience for his future Free Zone leadership, Paul agrees to join one of the grieving fathers (""a fat, sweaty hog"") in a look at Lisbon night-life. But, despite above-it-all protestations re ""these Temptations,"" the virginal young puritan finds himself driven mad with lust at a striptease joint--as Wain's prose lurches into artsy streams-of-consciousness. (""I can't stop watching and I can't sit still and I've drunk the rest of my lager in big fast gulps without even knowing I was drinking it. . ."") Finally, then, Paul returns to England a ""wounded person,"" awakened to his own human weakness, now ready to ""look with eyes of compassion and equality at other wounded people who still manage to push their lives along. . . Your drunken mother. Your indecisive, absentee father. . . ."" And there's a saccharine, implausible fadeout. . . with Paul's parents all ready to change their lives for the better. As a subtle short story, this coming-of-age anecdote might have been quietly effective. Here, however, inflated and heavyhanded, it's an ungainly sermonette--featuring a hero whose narration (more sour-middle-aged than distressed-teenager) is as unconvincing as his traumatic turnaround.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
Publisher: Delacorte