nolead begins By Ann Patchett

Harper. 304 pp. $25.95.

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Edward Champion

It is difficult to say whether the critical and commercial success of Ann Patchett's previous novel,

Bel Canto

, was helped by the post-9/11 climate of uncertainty and the accompanying need for literary comfort food. Six years later, with a more sober ledger of the world's dangers available for public inspection, it's remarkable that

Bel Canto

's fairy-tale premise of terrorists and hostages living in perfect harmony was taken so seriously.

Patchett's fifth novel, Run, takes her penchant for unbelievable narratives further. After a mostly extraneous first chapter, the book begins with Bernard Doyle, a widower and former Boston mayor, and his two adopted boys, Teddy and Tip, both in their early 20s, spending some quality time listening to Jesse Jackson delivering a speech at the Kennedy Center on a snowy night.

After the speech, the three get into an argument outside. Tip walks backward into the street, presumably because he is both young and restless. A mysterious woman named Tennessee, who just happens to be watching the whole time, pushes him out of the way and is hit by the conveniently approaching SUV that somehow nobody can see. Tennessee leaves behind an 11-year-old girl named Kenya, who just happens to be a PDQ runner ("Kenya was a flame, a thin pink wick.").

Meanwhile, Doyle's natural son, Sullivan, a 33-year-old prodigal who just happens to have destroyed his father's political career, appears whenever Patchett needs to pound home heavy-handed observation about paternity - "he was not the son to provide his father's wish fulfillment." Thanks for the subtlety.

Perhaps verisimilitude, a fundamental narrative staple, might be too much to ask for here. After all, Patchett expects us to believe that an abandoned girl can walk out of a hospital in the middle of the night with a bunch of total strangers without anyone batting an eye. She even has Tennessee talking with the ghost of a dead friend during a particularly interminable chapter.

Maybe Run is the work of an author who has momentarily lost her powers of phrasing. How does one read a sentence such as "He had been putting his hands on sick people since he was twenty-three years old" and not fall into laughter?

Patchett's syntactical inadequacies also extend into awkward imagery. We are told that Teddy has "all the political acumen of a koala." Is this intended as an allusion to a koala's pouch or is it merely a perfunctory qualifier? If the former, why not mention the pouch? Of Tip's injury, we are informed that the "ache in his ankle was like an angry conversation coming from another room." Even if we can pardon such descriptive slips, Patchett goes too far with such ridiculous dialogue as "With all due respect to your impending surgery, any person looking at this exchange would say that you are the one who should be answering questions." What human being speaks like that? It's a line one expects from a participant in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, not the latest from a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author.

Given Patchett's superficial descriptions of working-class people, one suspects she doesn't get out much. The grittiest imagery she offers in relation to the housing project where Kenya and Tennessee reside involves "Hispanic girls standing against a wall smoking cigarettes in the cold." We are told of a cab driver: "He was Jamaican. It was not a country that afforded any practice in driving through snow." Who says this Jamaican wasn't born and raised in the States? We are also given a preposterous image, executed as if this book were a surrogate for a 1970s cheeseball crime drama, of a junkie who "had torn the door off his refrigerator to put it in front of his window to block out the light." Presumably, this user was immune to the light from the fridge's open door.

This is not to say that the book is without interest. Teddy has an interesting mannerism of reciting speeches from the likes of Thoreau and Eugene V. Debs. At times, Tip's interest in fish suggests a Christian-like redemption. (The housing project is named Cathedral.) And Patchett does offer a too-infrequent but nevertheless ostensible sense of play here. At a later point in the book, Tip literally tips over.

But Patchett's efforts to depict the triumph of family in a dysfunctional world carry all the emotional heft of a Lifetime TV movie. This is fiction for people who live with their blinders on.