THE LITERARY first novel is as clearly defined a genre, with a carefully codified formula, as the land- dispute western novel or the locked-room murder mystery. Henry Bean's False Match fills the literary formula perfectly and ought not to be very interesting. It is, predictably, in the first person. What is more, it is in the form of journal entries. The narrator is 26. He lives in Berkeley, California, near Telegraph Avenue, in a house he shares with three characters who seem to have wandered in from the three other first novels where they lived previously. He is alienated from his parents. He writes. Or, rather, he is trying to write: he is at work on some possibly great opus that contains much of his own life (and which at times seems congruent with Bean's novel itself) but which is without form and without ending. He has, he tells us, "trouble with endings."
Readers who follow first novels have read this book a thousand times. Readers with less patience have hurled this book across the room a thousand times.
But Bean has succeeded, within this codified structure, in writing an interesting and thoughtful novel that rises above the clich,es of the formula. He can sketch the profile of a character in a few lines of dialogue or a detailed bit of observation. When his characters speak, it sounds like talking rather than writing. The book even has a plot, a rarity for literary novels these days.
Harold Raab enters into an affair with a married woman named Charlotte. Her husband, a doctor and something of a philanderer on his own account, looks the other way. It is all very banal and all very sad and they all know it, yet they all continue. They are living the modern life, the California life, the Berkeley life, and, as several of them comment at various points in the novel, it is killing them.
Where another writer might have let his novel drift away into Never-Never Land at this point, Bean now does something to Harold that might have pleased Hemingway: he hurts him, thrusts him into a critical situation, shoves his back up against the wall and watches to see what he does. The novel takes on a grim note here as reality presses hard on Harold and his fellow intellectual drifters. In the end, he is compelled to answer the call of reality and the novel closes on a resigned, though somewhat sad and wistful, note.
False Match is a fine, sensitive, and carefully written first novel. If Henry Bean can make the same transition as his central character here, we can look forward to more and even better books from him in the future.