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April 25, 2010

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Two-way view of sex in the 'burbs

THE set-up of Peter Hedges' third novel, "The Heights," is classic and promising. An attractive young couple, married with children, are roused from their rounds of diapers-and-drop-offs when a rich, beautiful stranger comes to well-heeled, aesthetically unbeatable Brooklyn Heights where the husband teaches history at an exclusive academy. Private school, real estate, a marriage at risk: what more could anyone want?

To tell this story, Hedges forgoes both the first-person voice and the third in favor of that more liberating option: the multiple first person. Each chapter announces who's talking: Tim; Kate; Tim; Kate. These two are the husband and wife, and Hedges splits the narrative more or less between them, with the stranger and a few other minor characters weighing in from time to time.

But the voice that really controls the story belongs to Tim Welch, a good-natured guy with an unwritten dissertation and a healthy sex drive. Money is tight for the couple, so when Kate is offered a dream job, Tim takes a year's leave from Montague Academy to be a stay-at-home dad.

I know what you're thinking: another acerbic gin-in-the-juicebox account of child care in stressed-out, knowledge-economy America. But this is not that book. "The Heights" does not have the caustic sting of, say, Tom Perrotta's "Little Children." Although Tim and Kate start out barely able to pay the bills and living in 900 square feet (83.6 square meters) compared with their neighbors' 5,000, no one in this book is embittered or desperate.

"The Heights" is a remarkably cheerful book; and as such, it suffers a bit from its own good will. Hedges really seems to like the Welches. Unpretentious, middle-income, still having sex - why wouldn't he? But I found myself wishing he had upped the comic ante by sacrificing some of their appeal.

I also wish he had settled on a tone. At one point Tim's father, a women's basketball coach at a Midwestern college, is busted for sexual harassment and loses his job. That could have played as domestic comedy or tragedy, but it instead comes and goes with no further implications for the novel.

Meanwhile, Kate's new job - for which she is, in a typically serendipitous turn, wildly overpaid °?- is as the administrator of a foundation that gives money to jokily named charities like "Adopt-a-Minefield" or "The International Breast Milk Project."

Kate's boss is "Bruno Schwine," and the Welches' children attend preschool at "R Kids Count Learning Center." But the playground mothers Tim comes to know have nametags we've learned to expect: "Eager-to-Please Mom, Best-Dressed Mom, Grateful Dead Mom."

The jokes in these names seem to emerge from two different novels, from two different comic traditions - the one (Eager-to-Please Mom) fundamentally realist; the other (Bruno Schwine) over-the-top and slightly surreal.

Comedy is so dependent on tone - on the reader knowing precisely how to take jokes, among other things - that Hedges sacrifices the laughs by trying to have it both ways.

There is one motif running through the novel that Hedges knows how to employ: the sex.

Despite the split first-person narrative, "The Heights" offers a man's vision, sexually, and there's something frat and very funny in its frankness, revealing the lustful male heart beating beneath the variegated facade of "The Heights."


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