Calculated Risks 

No more Mr. Nice Guys.

The Broken Places

By Susan Perabo

Simon & Schuster, 254 pp., $23

Susan Perabo has the unique distinction of being the author of a well-received book of short stories called Who I Was Supposed To Be and, as the first woman to play men's NCAA baseball, being a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. What the one may or may not have to do with the other I have no idea, but a degree of calculated risk comes to mind. A too-calculated frame of mind can, however, put a freeze on writer and athlete both, and Perabo's new novel, The Broken Places, is a case in point.

In the small town of Casey, Pennsylvania, a 12-year-old boy named Paul Tucker watches as his fireman father, Sonny, rescues a 16-year-old named Ian Finch from the basement rubble of an abandoned house. It was Ian, with his snarly attitude and swastika tattoo (a "goner" according to Paul's schoolteacher mother, Laura), who caused the place to collapse when his homemade bomb brought the house down. Ian comes out saved, minus a foot, and Sonny comes out a national hero, minus a personality -- or at least a personality Paul recognizes. In its place, Sonny, son of a legendary town fireman himself and the very emblem of an upstanding all-American, takes enthusiastically to the attention showered on him, bows to Ian's every antisocial comment, and, by the time he gets to Hollywood to supervise a bogus made-for-TV version of the rescue, takes to alcohol, cigarettes, orneriness, crying jags, general obnoxiousness, and a level of inattention to Paul unbefitting a human being, much less a father. Now it's Sonny who comes close to bringing his own house down. Laura, perpetual worry-wart and as tightly coiled as they come, for her part, back in Casey, pulls her own switcheroo by making a racket on Paul's drums and wandering the house at all hours. Paul, a nice kid, doesn't know what the hell is going on, tries valiantly to stick up for his father while sticking by his mother, then takes up with Ian to begin a good lesson in the time-honored tradition of family secrets. (For his part, Ian does some changing too: He starts off positively dangerous and graduates into mere loathsomeness.)

There is no arguing Perabo's descriptive talent when it comes to setting and speech in The Broken Places. No use denying, either, the underlying, universal family dynamic she's got going here: that most of us live most of our lives living up to or living down whatever or whoever came before us, each to his own to make his own separate peace. Or no separate peace if you're Sonny Tucker, who enlists his wife into a kind of disappearing act in the space of months and to the bewilderment of his son. Do people in real life change this drastically this quickly and into their diametrical opposite this thoroughly? Do characters in fiction? Possibly, even in a strong novel with an even stronger design, as Perabo writes it. In a great novel, never.

The Catsitters

By James Wolcott

HarperCollins, 314 pp., $25

Wonders never cease. Or is it no wonder whenever a critic, in this case Vanity Fair's James Wolcott, gets it into his head to write a comic novel and a fine eye for the asinine goes suddenly cloudy with sentimentality, predictability, and, when those two won't do, impossibility -- this in a book purporting to be a sophisticated take on the wild and wacky world of a single man of a certain age out of his league but on the make?

The man in question is Johnny Downs, a bartender-slash-actor in New York City and nice-enough guy but, all told, a little too nice for his own good and way too clueless to be a bartender-slash-actor in New York City. When his girlfriend two-times him, his friend Darlene, a calculating motormouth down in Georgia but no dummy in the romance department, enters the picture to telephonically pull Downs out of the dumps and wipe Downs' heart off his sleeve. Darlene's object: to turn him from doormat material into marriage material. Downs' objects: a string of highly self-absorbed and equally high-driven New Yorky women Downs may find to his liking but you should find, with the exception of one, intolerable. Darlene's winning way with object and objects both: witty and wise counsel when it isn't cruel and unusual punishment, and Wolcott does right by keeping the details fresh, the tone brittle, the action furious, and Downs in keeping with Darlene's every command.

Would that Wolcott had kept at it, too, rather than softening midway into The Catsitters. Better yet, would that Wolcott had given Downs something of a spine. Hard to do, though, when your protagonist at heart is a real softie and you don't dare make him not too good to be true.

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