By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; C04
By Michael Byers
Henry Holt. 415 pp. $27
It's nice to see Pluto getting some love. You might remember that after years of nasty rumors, the International Astronomical Union kicked Pluto out of the planet club in 2006. And then came those mocking novelty T-shirts: "It's okay, Pluto. I'm not a planet either." We still don't know much about that little chunk of ice and rock orbiting billions of miles away on the edge of our solar system, but an endearing new novel by Michael Byers takes us back to its discovery at a backwater observatory just as the Roaring Twenties were falling into a black hole.
Although Byers isn't a scientist -- he teaches English at the University of Michigan -- this is his second book about a laboratory quest. His first, "Long for This World" (2003), followed a geneticist hoping to cure a fatal childhood disease, and now "Percival's Planet" peers up at the stars. But there's nothing geeky about Byers's novels, or if there is, it never dominates the story. (Let his characters make "a normative calculation of least squares"; you don't have to.) Like Allegra Goodman's "Intuition" and Richard Powers's "Generosity," "Percival's Planet" calculates the moral dimensions of scientific investigation, the whole system of people drawn into orbit around a mystery, sometimes without even realizing it.
The breadth of Byers's field of vision is a saving grace because searching for planets is not like prospecting for gold in the Amazon jungle or tracking down a lost child in Sarajevo. It's a mission of mind-numbing tedium carried out in the dark. In the 1920s, if you wanted to boldly go where no man had gone before and discover what was referred to as Planet X, you needed two quiet rooms. In one room sat the computers -- that is, a bevy of mathematically gifted women toiling away on regression analysis with sharp pencils. In the other room sat a "blink comparator," something like the photo album from hell. This machine presents two tiny exposures of the sky taken a week apart. If the gods were smiling on the weather and the telescope and the film, and you weren't even the least bit distracted after staring at these pinholes of light for months on end, you might notice that one of those objects has moved ever so slightly between the two photos. And that's how a self-taught Kansas farm boy named Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.
The most charming section of the novel comes early, when young Clyde is grinding his own lenses in a barn and dreaming of going to college. But that's just one of several story lines that Bryers picks up long before they all wind together at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. "Something in the desert air is drawing them by the carload," he writes. "Tubercular patients in their last visionary days, half-mad desert seekers, white gowned proponents of psychical truth, sunstruck mummy hunters prospecting in the Grand Canyon, dog-nipped Navaho dreamers, earnest ethnographers with their wax-cylinder recorders. . . . Put these oddballs alongside the genuine cowboys and second-generation frontier sheriffs and you have a funny mix, all right."
From this rich collection of characters residing in different universes, Byers has chosen and created about a half-dozen, fleshing out their strange stories like a desert version of Doctorow's "Ragtime": An amateur heavyweight in Boston falls in love with a gorgeous, unstable woman who believes a horn is growing out of the back of her head; the scion of a chemical fortune dapples with metaphysics before deciding that he and his mother should hunt for dinosaurs in the American West; and, finally, there's Alan Barber, a Harvard-trained astronomer who names a newly discovered comet after a young woman just hours before she tells him she's engaged.
Byers patiently draws this whole constellation of eccentric people to Flagstaff, revolving through them chapter by chapter until their paths intersect with the vision of the late Percival Lowell, who left his fortune to the observatory, "a second-rate place, it is generally agreed, staffed by old men and with a notorious history of crackpottery." Lowell is represented by his grasping widow, but I'm sorry he died before the novel opens. His exotic combination of brilliance and nuttiness -- "his assertion that the canals on Mars were built by a race of benevolent superbeings" -- would have fit right in with the amateur dinosaur hunter and the horned madwoman.
Still, Byers is not in this for laughs or ridicule. He's a careful mathematician of the heart when calculating the trajectory of affection. Just as the planets influence one another, tugging and stretching their orbits as they sweep around the sun, so all these characters cause perturbations in each other's lives. And Byers writes with a sweet mixture of humor and sympathy about lunacy and manhood during a period of extraordinary disruption.
So what makes "Percival's Planet" such a sedentary, well-behaved tale? It seems as though Byers's ruminative temperament eclipses the natural drama of his story. He shuts down almost every opportunity for excitement the way my grandfather used to yell, "Cut that out before somebody loses an eye!" every time my brother and I picked up a stick. And there are plenty of sticks lying around these pages: He's got a mother and son lost at sea in a dinghy! An insane woman tries to cut off the back of her head! Gangsters move in on the archaeological dig! But these are framed as mere minor incidents compared to the energy and space devoted to Alan Barber's endless ruminations on his dim love life or the novel's climactic scene: a formal dinner party at the observatory during which (gasp!) Percival's widow behaves rudely. I worry that these nicely phrased sentences about odd, sympathetic people won't be enough to pull readers through more than 400 pages -- particularly toward a foregone conclusion (sorry again, Pluto). But for a certain kind of reader, a contemplative, sensitive reader with a sense of wonder at the mysteries above and within us, "Percival's Planet" will prove a subtle, satisfying adventure.
Charles is The Post fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.