Deadbeat Dads

Mona Simpson’s father fixation.

A Regular Guy

By Mona Simpson

(Knopf; 336 pages; $25)

“I had done this before,” says the heroine of Mona Simpson’s The Lost Father (1992), as she sets off on her search for the mysterious Egyptian man who left home when she was a child. “I was always doing things over again in my life,” she reiterates, as if to reassure readers that she knows the territory looks familiar. It does. Like her characters, Simpson is addicted to quests for lost fathers. Her first book, Anywhere But Here (1987), was the story of a mother and daughter unmoored by the absence of a father. The Lost Father, its sequel, had the daughter seeking to rectify the situation, announcing, “I knew I hadn’t really done it right the first time.” In A Regular Guy, her latest novel, Simpson has yet another heroine looking for her father. The trouble is that Simpson really did do it right the first time and, by now, she has gotten rather tired.

It’s fitting that Simpson can’t seem to stop herself, for what galvanized Anywhere But Here was its obsession with obsessives. Upon her emergence on the literary scene almost a decade ago, Simpson seemed like a sort of Philip Roth in reverse, a virtuosic ventriloquist for a compelling non-Jewish, nonurban, high-energy American neurotic type. Her heroines were restless Midwestern females absurdly full of optimism and fatally drawn to exoticism, which presented itself in the form of an unreliable Egyptian. Abandoned by Mohammed Atassi, Ann Stevenson joined her magnificently deluded mother, Adele, in a compensatory fantasy of escape and renewal. This pair of romantic provincials came from a hardscrabble rural gynocracy, and also from the precincts of mythic caricature. An intense realist and a fierce satirist, Simpson turned this mother-daughter journey from small-town Wisconsin in pursuit of fame and a new father in the promised land (Los Angeles) into a surreal odyssey of female frustration. Ann and Adele, products of the claustrophobic 1950s, fought and clung to each other and never found their man. With them, the classic search for the American Dream became a brilliantly eccentric matrilineal comedy of no manners.

In A Regular Guy, Simpson apparently has concluded that the time has come to be witheringly ironic, rather than comic, about the American Dream. No longer picaresque, the quest for father and fortune now aims to be profound. So it is a famous West Coast entrepreneur, rather than obscure Middle American hicks, to whom Simpson grants the chance to display a zealous ambition born of delusory innocence. This elusive father is no longer a wanderer pursued by driven furies. He’s the multimillionaire founder of a biotech company, and the mother-daughter pair in pursuit of him are hippie drifters, who whimper for their chance at legitimacy and reliable love where Adele and Ann howled and scratched.

Tom Owens is the 30-year-old, handsome, vegetarian, jean-clad driving force behind Genesis, a California enterprise that has become extremely successful extremely quickly. He has one friend, a man, who is an obvious foil. Noah Kaskie is a cripple working slowly in comparative obscurity, trying to map a gene and worrying about money and love. But otherwise, Owens is surrounded mostly by women. Chief among his many conquests is Olivia, his current girlfriend, a beauty who enthralls him by night in the ramshackle mansion he’s never bothered to fix up and disappoints him by day in her modest desire for a career no greater than that of a nurse’s aide.

And then out of Owens’ offbeat past appear his 10-year-old daughter, Jane, and her mother, Mary di Natali, whom he once urged to get an abortion and has since done his best to forget. They’ve been living truly on the fringe, in a succession of communes and finally alone in a tiny cottage in the northern California woods, though Mary has made sure never to drop completely from sight. Each year, she sends a photograph of Jane to Owens, who never acknowledges it. As the novel begins, she’s preparing to send Jane by herself in their rusty truck, having laboriously and implausibly taught the girl to drive.

Commenting on that nighttime drive over the mountains, with the child perched on a seat stacked with phone books, Simpson writes, “The most terrible and wondrous experience in Jane di Natali’s life was over by the time she was ten, before she’d truly mastered the art of riding a bicycle.” That’s not what you want to hear on page 28 of a 336-page novel in which Jane, a central character, will have many more experiences. And it’s not as if Simpson has expended much effort on making the truck ride all that terrible or wondrous. Simpson here plays omniscient narrator for the first time, and the poetic intensity and sure rhythms that drove the monologues of her first novel and still echoed in her second are gone. That vapid, sentimentalizing declaration about Jane’s ride is typical of the flaccid style she now favors, and what it says proves true: The novel is all anticlimax.

Simpson apparently meant to write an acerbic social portrait of America’s post-postindustrial revolution, and of the former countercultural baby boomers who lead it. But she can’t summon up much curiosity about Owens, who rarely rises above portentously ironic clichés. “He was an American industrialist,” we learn early on, “a believer in the potential accomplishments of state, and, in a way he couldn’t explain, proud.” So we know he’s riding for a fall, professionally and personally (just as we know that Noah–the most prominent of the many characters whose roles in the book soon peter out–will have a shot at the Nobel). Genesis might as well be, say, Microsoft–you know, no neckties, brainy employees, only the freshest fruit juice in the machines. (Actually, the model for Owens is pretty clearly Steve Jobs, who is Simpson’s brother.) It’s hard even to figure out what the company produces: Simpson gives us an acronym for a medically useful protein, LCSF, and that’s about it.

Nor is it clear why, exactly, Owens gets ousted from power, except that that’s what happens to overconfident egotists even (or especially) when they flaunt a democratic, granola style. As for Owens’ fate with his various women, it’s impossible to care–because Simpson doesn’t. She indulges Owens the celebrity genius in endless narcissistic agonizing about who will be his wife, and gives Owens the man no emotional substance. His selfish vacuity is, of course, the point. Still, he’s also supposed to have charisma and fascinating idiosyncrasies. (He drives fast, regularly runs out of gas, forgets appointments, has lots of answering machines he ignores: Simpson’s idea of big-shot oddity is not very odd.) But really, as the title warns, he comes across as just a guy who’s a jerk with chicks.

Why do the women put up with him? Since the soul of this latest tycoon isn’t interesting, Simpson might have found a story in the social insecurity of the women who are his hangers-on, and their ambivalence about ambition. But the upward-mobility drama of Ann and Adele may be a nearly impossible act to follow; Jane and Mary don’t even try. Again, that seems to be the point. Where Adele brought the fiercest, most infantile needs to maternity, Mary is the mother as mellow flower child. Where the steak- and corn-fed Ann rushes down the road to rebellion, Jane, the wild child from the woods, becomes a conformist.

Neither mother nor daughter is made distinctive this time around, except in the most heavy-handed way. (Jane continues to eat her scabs, even as she’s being civilized. Mary takes up with a gentle bird-saving loser.) Meanwhile, Olivia fits right into the role of the beautiful-blonde-who-isn’t-really-a-bimbo. Jane and Mary’s dependence and deference as they maneuver for Owens’ attention (and money), Owens’ domineering response to his “family,” Olivia’s defiance of Owens at the end–all are presumably meant to suggest, with due irony, that in America, plus çachange. … But that is not a very original moral, and there aren’t nearly enough sharp fin-de-siècle observations to rejuvenate it. It is, however, a motto that all too accurately applies to this novel itself.