UTAH By Toby Olson Linden Press/Simon and Schuster 282 pp. $17.95
TOBY OLSON'S ingenious new novel starts off so unassumingly -- it seems for a while that the reader is in for a string of anecdotes -- that few who pick it up will be prepared for the virtuoso performance that follows. Those familiar with the author's last novel, The Woman Who Escaped From Shame, know that he is a skillful contrapuntalist; he loves to develop ideas by playing them off against subtle variants of themselves. In Utah, Olson uses this method to weave familiar ideas and seemingly familiar plot-strands into an original and bizarrely imaginative contemporary parable.
At the center of the novel is David, a masseur whose wife Lorca has vanished after a period of enigmatic behavior. A subsequent intense friendship with a homosexual artist, Anson, has recently ended with Anson's death. David is obsessed by these disappearances of loved ones from his life. As a result he is held firmly captive by his past. To reflect this paralysis, Olson scatters the early portion of the novel with souvenir-objects, crystallizations of lost time. The very first image is of a series of photographs being viewed by David with previously intimate but long-unvisited friends.
David, however, does have power over the pasts of others. As a masseur he has the ability to bring fresh blood into unused muscle, to re-energize it and bring it back to life. Those upon whom he practices this art seem to become saturated in their reawakened pasts as David works on them; long chronicles of opportunities missed and of unfulfillment pour from them in sad monologues. Among these is the Bishop, who has realized, long afterwards at a class reunion, that he had been the subject of ridicule and contempt because his homosexual gropings with a friend named Burl had been spied on. Although the Bishop, ignorant of his disgrace, has been safe in his cloth through the years, Burl has become a wretched, self-despising outcast.
Similarly responsive to David's hands are two couples, friends from earlier years. Melchior, an artist who takes tombstone rubbings and embellishes them into personal works of art, and his wife Barbara are loving and comparatively happy. But the mad Carl, his wife Anne and their three children are tormented by Carl's increasingly erratic and mysterious behavior.
It is during David's visit to Carl and Anne's home that a new element seeps into the book: a controlled element of fantasy and surrealism that will gradually transform it completely. The manic Carl insists on preparing Peking Duck for his guest, and demonstrates a technique that permits easy removal of the skin: He inflates each bird with helium by means of a needle placed between the skin and muscles. Once pumped up, they float upward, tethered by cords. Olson's description of their resurrection is striking:
"They rose up, not quite in unison, until each reached the end of its tether, the thin nylon line tacked into the wood, and as they reached that terminus and the line snapped taut they bounced a little and drifted to either side, their feet kicking, their heads rotating on their stiff, inflated necks.
"They moved toward each other in drifts, but they did not reach each other. Their heads turned at times, as if to make note of impending contact, and then rotated back to look at a place above us over the roof and into the sky."
THE DISTURBING power of this image is intensified a few pages later when it is re-evoked in a passage where David, Carl and Anne sit in a hot tub, their heads floating about, seemingly disembodied. Further echoes of it occur later in the book.
With the take-off of the helium-filled ducks, the realistic tone that predominates in the early pages of Utah has been transformed. The narrative strays farther and farther from reality as it progresses, and Olson is free to discard the logical restrictions of the realistic novel to elaborate on his system of symbolism, which eventually attains the density of allegory.
Besides being united by their accessibility to the soothing capabilities of David's hands, it emerges that all of the characters in the novel are drawn for various personal reasons to the state of Utah, and it is here that all of them, seemingly by chance, are reunited.
David has traveled to Utah in search of Anson's grave. In a cemetery he finds not the tombstone he is seeking, but Melchior taking rubbings. Barbara, too, is in Utah, and the three travel together. Soon the Bishop, reunited with Burl, turns up, and the five continue journeying into the desert wilderness.
But the Utah Olson describes is not the one on the map. It is a magical territory where all the novel's characters can realize gifts and possibilities that have eluded them in the past. It is in the final section of the novel, set in this strange terrain, that the design of Utah becomes visible in all its complexity. Even the name of the state seems to fit into the pattern. Its four letters printed on the dust jacket are bilaterally symmetrical: front and back, past and future, reflect each other and join to form a whole.
What Olson says throughout Utah is nothing new: love and art have redemptive power; creativity activated by love brings happiness. But the way he says it, his fluency in a language of echoes and symmetries that answer each other across such a wide range of narrative tones and styles, will delight readers who have come to miss American attempts at the visionary novel.
Bob Halliday writes frequently about contemporary literature and music.