by Knopf, $12.95. Whatever its flaws, Birdy, William Wharton’s first novel, does lift you out of your own humdrum world and give you a good look at things from a different perspective. Dad, his second novel, is considerably more earthbound, not to say pedestrian. Concerned with the touchy relations between aging parents and their children, it smothers its subject with clichés and pomposity..
The narrator is Jack Tremont, a fifty-two-year-old artist who is unaccountably able to support his family in Paris, one of the most expensive cities in the world, by painting landscapes. Summoned to Los Angeles because of his mother’s first heart attack, he finds his father nearly catatonic with suppressed fear and anger. This is not the Dad that Jack remembers, and Jack wants his old Dad back. So he embarks on a program of intensive care, bullying uncooperative doctors, taking Dad for motorcycle rides, and generally trying to overcome years of abusive treatment by Mom.
The plan works: Dad achieves an ebullient second adolescence despite being proclaimed a schizophrenic and a misunderstood genius. But Mom is not about to give up her power, and eventually Jack realizes that he has to withdraw.
Dad could have been an affecting book if Wharton had succeeded in conveying some of the pain of such situations. Instead, he has merely recycled elements of his best seller: the interior monologue, which here makes no sense; and the casual, colloquial style, which in this case is simply sloppy use of the language. He has also thrown in for prurient interest an aggressively sexy black nurse, a visit to a whorehouse, and some dope-smoking hippies. Perhaps he just wasn’t up to more subtle writing; after all, as Jack tells his own son, “Inner searching can be more tiring than you think.”