Frederick G. Dillen
Algonquin, $23.95

Like his first novel, Hero, Frederick Dillen’s second book is a redemption comedy. While Hero related a Manhattan steakhouse waiter’s triumph over his past, Fool is a slapstick morality tale in which the jerkoff son of a Boston Brahmin lawyer sets out to redeem his pratfall-prone soul. Barnaby Griswold is a loose canon of good cheer and impulse born into the grim propriety of Eastern establishment boarding schools and tennis clubs. He has no real job. But this being the go-go 1980s, Barnaby puts together financial deals by virtue of his establishment connections and his willingness to pick up extravagant lunch tabs at his favorite Manhattan restaurant, La Côte.

This "fluffmeister," as his father disparages him, has some of the big-galoot charm of Gene Henderson, the expansive hero of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, except that Barnaby Griswold’s much more modest quest takes him not into the wilds of Africa but merely to "the jubilantly tasteless vicinity of Oklahoma City." Nor does Dillen quite manage to give Barnaby any of Henderson’s spiritual gravitas or development. Not that Barnaby doesn’t try, quite self-consciously and with a plodder’s determination, to transform himself. The chapter names–Athlete, Victor, Pilgrim, Lover, and Fool–mark the stages of a shrunken hero’s journey, almost as if Dillen were simultaneously honoring and mocking Joseph Campbell.

When we meet Barnaby Griswold, his wife has left him (taking their two daughters); he has lost his house on Massachusetts’ blue-blood Winott Point; and, most troublesome of all, he has been suspended by the Securities and Exchange Commission for his part in an Oklahoma bank deal gone horribly wrong. At 46, Barnaby has nothing and no one. His quest, admittedly far from epic, is to get his life back. And to do so, he assumes the identities denoted by the chapter names. While waiting for his SEC suspension to end, ungainly Barnaby dedicates himself to the gym in order to prepare for the Winott Cup, the tennis tournament at the club to which his family has belonged for generations. No sooner does he win the Cup than he realizes that such a victory won’t solve his problems. Then, in a scene that illustrates just how willing Dillen is to pull the rug out from under any expectations of drama, Barnaby, just as he is contemplating suicide on a window ledge, is saved by a phone call–to which he runs, writes Dillen, "with the release of a puppy let off the leash."

The call is from Ada, his ex-wife’s mother who lives, in one of several coincidences that Dillen allows himself, in Oklahoma City. Thus begins Barnaby’s stint as a pilgrim, a penitent performer of good works. By caring for stroke-felled, wheelchair-bound Ada, he hopes to rack up enough good karma to earn his life back. Barnaby originally agrees to care for Ada only from Labor Day until the end of the year, when his suspension expires. At one point, he is delighted to find himself "pilgriming like a house afire," as if good works were a competitive sport, one more hurdle in the obstacle course he has convinced himself lies between him and his rightful table at La Côte. But something altogether new happens to Barnaby: as vinegary old Ada moves in and out of episodes of dotage, despair, and fleeting lucidity, she and Barnaby come to depend on each other in ways that are no less real for their absurdity. Their relationship is the only real relationship in the book and gives the story its only moments of tenderness.

Of course, it takes Barnaby a while to recognize the value of their bond. And there are distractions for him in Oklahoma City. For starters, there’s Barnaby’s nemesis, Peterpotter, a former associate with revenge in his heart and a penchant for numskull violence. Also in Oklahoma City is a waitress who becomes the object of Barnaby’s awkward desire. That this object turns out to be the daughter of one of the Winott Point Winotts is proof that Barnaby is watched over by some very benevolent god of good-natured fools.

Scene by scene, chapter by chapter, and ultimately from beginning to end, Foolputs a reader in the attitude of waiting for the other shoe to drop. When Barnaby feels large, we wait for the next pie to hit him in the face; when Barnaby despairs, we wait for another phone call to save him. And so, just when Barnaby has promised Ada that he has forsworn his old life of fluffing and will remain with her in Oklahoma, temptation comes knocking. Having been drawn east by yet another pissant dragon to slay, Barnaby finds himself privy to some cryptic comments about the stock market dropped by the arriviste head of the Tennis Association. Barnaby correctly interprets these comments and predicts a crash. Word gets around Wall Street that Barnaby Griswold is back, and it appears that Barnaby’s character, his foolishness, will get the best of him and that he will turn his back on Ada.

But Dillen, after putting his hero through his paces, after bloodying him up and repeatedly reducing him to tears, lets Barnaby off with a wink and a nod. He gives Barnaby a trickster’s metaphysical triumph. Barnaby does go back to Ada, but he does so because it is the most foolish thing he can do at the moment the decision is made. Even when Barnaby does the right thing, he does it as a beau geste, as if he were back at La Côte buying drinks for the house. When, after some hesitation, he tells a cabbie to take him to La Guardia Airport (and thus back to Ada) rather than to an old running buddy on the Street, there’s nothing beyond the fact that the decision occurs on the last page of the book to convince us that this is not merely one more expansive gesture in his fool’s repertoire. Like everything else about Barnaby, the moment is earnest, but not serious.

Ultimately, the novel is a little too punch drunk with its own humor, and ultimately Barnaby learns too little of the world and of himself. Fool hovers, at all times, a few inches above the ground of real life, real pain, real despair (and real triumph, for that matter).

Which begs the question of how much seriousness we should ask of a comic novel. Dillen is an agile stylist who, by the adept placement of a simple comma, can wring an unexpected laugh from a sentence. He also has a gift for outrageous similes (the lips of a horse eating a carrot are likened to those of "a retired trumpet player at a martini"; Marian has "freckles like pale war paint on an Episcopal savage"). In comedy, isn’t all well that ends well, and shouldn’t that be enough if the laughs come thick and fast and the language zips? Theoretically, yes. But Dillen flirts with pathos, and with real feeling, just enough to raise a reader’s expectations. Fool is certainly not the work of a fluffmeister. It is the work of a very talented comic novelist who has clearly found his voice, but has not yet tested its range.