COUSIN IT By Lynn Caraganis Ticknor & Fields. 230 pp. $19.95
"WHAT HAPPENED was that we were watching Liberace on Ed Sullivan and Cousin Ruth's husband Cousin Debs walked into the room and said, 'Oh no, not him again!' and I said, 'I'll bet he's a teetotaller!' -- not meaning anything in particular by it. And the next thing I knew, Cousin Ruth and I were barely acquainted."
And so this unintentional religious slur (teetotaller being slang for Mormon) begins Lynn Caraganis's second novel, Cousin It, a tale of innocence and coming of age in 1950s California.
Orphaned at 3 by parents she barely knows two paragraphs about, Vickie is taken in by cousins Ruth and Debs, devout Latter Day Saints. Together they live a quiet, religious life in San Jose until the summer Vickie is 17 (1958) when she deeply and irrevocably offends Cousin Ruth with her quip about Liberace.
Following the incident, Vickie receives a letter from her only other living relative, cousin Itzel, or It, inviting her to live in a house he owns in the nearby and newly created suburb of Moraga.
Exiled from her childhood home, Vickie is transported to Moraga by Esther Pizzouli -- family friend and manufacturer of "Rose-Oleum, a body preparation for overweight women." Esther's "streamlined Cadillac" glides to a stop in front of Vickie's dream house, a redwood ranch fixed on a yard of bare sand, "furnished in the most beautiful taste" and staffed by Lily Georgie, "a well respected Negro woman from an agency."
Not much happens in Moraga or in Vickie's life. Cousin It is conspicuously absent; he lives elsewhere, having bought the Moraga house to establish himself as a mayoral candidate. Alone, Vickie wanders the house, eating endless bologna sandwiches, watching Arthur Godfrey, and hoping to hear "Ebb Tide" on the radio.
The days are punctuated by visits from a series of friends and neighbors: Sylvia Fowler, the sculptress next door and mother of Joyce, a teenaged kleptomaniac; Dennis Cornacchione, Vickie's soon-to-be-former boyfriend; and Maura, her soon-to-be-former best friend -- who takes up with Dennis, of course. And there's the ever present busy body Esther, with good connections at Walmuth's department store, and her truly disgusting, lecherous son, Eugene. There's also the neighbor on the other side who makes appearances beside her trash cans dressed in a bra and girdle, a sight so frightening it sends Vickie running back into the house.
When Vickie finds a scruffy white kitten she is "the happiest teenager in Moraga." And according to Vickie, her life is wonderful, much fuller than in the old days at Cousin Ruth's. "There was only one thing left to make it perfect, and that was, at six p.m. a boy would come in a white convertible to take me to the Dairy Queen."
Well, she doesn't get to the Dairy Queen, but does meet Eric, a nice enough boy who takes her to the A&W stand. In the end, Cousin It is running for mayor; the shoplifting Joyce may be headed for community college; and, thanks to Esther's connections at Walmuth's, Vickie has a job as a salesgirl and she and her cat have found a new home. WHAT Caraganis seems to be playing with throughout are fairly stock images of suburban home life, similar to those seen in the recent film "Edward Scissorhands": housing developments, crazy kids and frustrated housewife after frustrated housewife -- nothing terribly exotic or eccentric, although Vickie finds all of it fascinating. The flaw of both "Scissorhands" and Cousin It is that both seem to believe that the presentation of these caricatures -- contrasted with the naive innocent as outsider figure, Edward in the film and Vickie in Caraganis's book -- is enough to make a story worth reading or a film worth seeing. But, without sufficient elaboration, these characters never reach the dimensions necessary to sustain interest.
Caraganis, whose first novel Garish Days was well received, is at her best when the characters are simply allowed to speak for themselves. In spots the dialogue is funny and revealing.
In the end, Cousin It is filled with possibilities that could go well beyond the usual coming-of-age material -- the new California suburbs of the 1950s, the experience of coming out of a deeply religious background into the larger world or even the secret life of an orphan -- but Vickie is such an incredibly immature and undeveloped teenager that her ability to interpret herself and the world around her is minimal at best. Cousin It is a kind of suburban knock, knock who's there, and, unfortunately, there's nobody home. A.M. Homes is the author of the novel "Jack" and a collection of short stories, "The Safety of Objects."