HENRY WILLIAM Jean-Pierre Lionel Hayes-Middleton is having an identity crisis. Who wouldn't, with all those names? He appears to be a well-schooled, well-dressed young British gentleman, articulate, diplomatic and of proper parents. And while those seven names and two hyphens may look as if they're wrapped up smoothly, packed in a seamless capsule, Henry is actually a time bomb, waiting to go off.
We all know men like Henry. They're somewhere in between being extremely self-confident and detestably self-absorbed, independently proud and utterly, utterly pompous. And while we hope to know such men more from literature and less from life, they often make their way into both. They strode through Brideshead Revisited and The Raj Quartet, drinking whiskey out of short glasses, destroying themselves and taking others with them. College yearbooks are full of them: their first decade after graduation, they're plugged in; 10 years later, they're flipped out.
In fact, many of the characters in Rachel Billington's ninth novel, The Garish Day, may seem familiar to readers of British novels or at least to viewers of PBS. Henry is the son of Lionel Hayes-Middleton, a foreign service officer who, in the course of his work, bullies his way through India, Ceylon Spain and other countries. Exotic, colorful cultures are lost on the uniform, rigid Lionel, who far prefers to work his way up the career ladder and into the beds of other officers' wives, than to enrich himself or mingle with the non-British world around him. Beatrice, his wife, is his perfect mate, mutely migrating wherever her husband goes, blind to Lionel's philandering. Yet she gets her way; she takes the infant Henry, their only son, and has him baptized Catholic. Before you can say Graham Greene, Paul Scott or Evelyn Waugh, the boy is thrown head first into Anglican boarding schools and into his father's footsteps. And the time bomb starts ticking.
Henry had a way out once, but he chose not to take it. Just after graduation, he marries Flavia, a fellow student at Oxford, who all too quickly realizes she's hitched to a stiff. Their daughter is born, and Flavia quickly annuls the marriage, but not without first giving Henry yet another name: Harry. The nickname sticks but the shtick doesn't. Henry never lightens up, never becomes good old Harry.
Born in 1940, Henry is the embodiment of Britain's declining fortunes (he's a schoolboy just as Mountbatten is handing back India). He's the symbol (all too obvious, it turns out) of Anglican-Catholic conflict, of the rigid, ordered success-driven world of his father and the mystical, emotional, religious world of his mother.
BUT HALFWAY through this book, the characters stop living and start traveling. Someone, often Henry, is always catching a boat, nabbing a plane, visiting an old friend in America or an old uncle in Ireland. Billington, of course, is buying the tickets, and the constantly shifting settings keep the characters fairly unhappy and generally unsettled, which is just what Billington wants. Change chips away at Henry's smooth veneer. Transplanted to America, he can no longer operate on automatic pilot. He starts introspecting, asking questions, thinking about religion, reading the Bible . . . TICK, TICK.
But characters who hurtle through too much space in too short a time wind up with too much baggage. They're serving too many purposes. They become vehicles, chartered around from country to country in an attempt to give this story a social significance that it frankly was better off without. Take Belinda, an American and one of Henry's old girlfriends. When Henry visits her in the '60s, she's an enslaved wife, drinking too early in the day, looking frowsy, married to a real estate man. In the '70s, she's a bicoastal peacenik who breezes into Henry's New York apartment from California, an ethnic-cottoned feminist clanking through peace demonstrations in homemade jewelry. Can't an old girlfriend be just a fond memory and not a hamhanded symbol of social change in America?
It's not that characters should be always delightful, keep us amused and suffer nothing more severe than a mild case of jet lag. But they can't be likable and still make a reader suffer through some primary lesson in history: "Harry, who had never much attended to weather, was affected by it as by a fever. He even wondered if his flu -- he had never been quite satisfied that was all it was -- was returning, this time to show its true death-dealing colors. Martin Luther King had been assassinated on April 4."
These simplistic, unsubtle connections are a burden Billington puts on her characters: Harry's feeling ill, and is about to explode, in 1968, in an America that's explosive, too. Get it?
The sad truth is that when characters have to be in two places at once, they end up being not anywhere at all. And when poor Harry's final seconds start to tick off, there's hardly anybody left to hear them.
Jeanne McManus is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Magazine. CAPTION: Picture, Rachel Billington, BY JERRY BAUER