THE LIGHT OF COMMON DAY By John Herman Doubleday. 292 pp. $22.95
READERS will be hard pressed to find a more wholesome character than Paul Werth, who is the focus of John Herman's coming-of-age novel The Light of Common Day. The year is 1960. Beatniks are in. Words like "groovy" are in. "Psycho" is the latest box-office hit. But Paul Werth could be the child of almost any generation. A student at New York's Highgate Academy, Paul has reached that moment between childhood and adulthood when the world suddenly stops making sense. New concerns take over his life, the foremost of which is, of course, women. For Paul, there is the self-proclaimed intellectual Nicole Swan, whose monologues on Dostoyevsky he endures only because he knows she will repay his patience with the opportunity to "touch her body as if it were a lesson he was trying to learn." Sometimes he cannot even wait that long, and kisses her because it is "the only way to stop her ramblings, and the sweetness of her lips filled him with sadness." Naturally, he is goaded by his friends to report all bodily contact in exact detail. "That pretentious bitch goddess, Nicole Swan," declares one of Paul's friends. "Has it ever occurred to you that that young woman is not who you think she is?" "No, it hasn't," replies Paul. "I'm in love with her." "Love, phoo! Don't be in love with anyone, it's a bad investment. It turns the soul into soggy white bread." Love or no love, Nicole is quickly replaced by the more mysterious, and more mischievous, Laura Kinski. "Her skin was white and flawless and Paul realized to his considerable unease that he had been thinking about licking it, the way he might lick an ice cream cone." Overshadowing this otherwise somewhat unremarkable adolescence is the death of Paul's father after a series of heart attacks. Herman skillfully depicts Paul's denial as the father tries to explain that he is dying. The power in this section of the narrative is drawn from the chaos that the reader knows is about to descend upon this young man. While Paul is instinctively aware of this himself, he lacks the language or experience to comprehend the enormity of it. Herman weaves scenes of the father's suffering throughout the book; this specter of death contrasts with the attitude of Paul and his friends as they begin the exploration of their adult lives. Compounding Paul's worries is the popularity of his older brother, Matthew ("Run like your brother!" Paul is told as he trains, more or less unsuccessfully, for the baseball team). Matthew's drive and confidence only serve to underscore Paul's slumping performance at sports and the confusion of his relationships. Herman allows his characters many musings on life and its apparent lack of meaning in this world of first cigarettes, hand-holding in the cinema, first glimpses of sex, pornography and towel-snapping bullies in the shower. Drugs, too, play a part in this accelerating loss of innocence, culminating in a tragically commonplace teenage suicide.
IT IS ALL HERE. Herman has prepared a checklist of adolescent angst and has covered the terrain with great efficiency. However, the situations he presents are so familiar to this genre that it is difficult to find any new insight into this turbulent phase of growing up. Perhaps it is not necessary to do so. Maybe the value to the reader of such a novel is merely to reinforce the notion that, although we felt as if we and we alone were experiencing the muddled passions of youth, we were in fact not alone, and from this draw retrospective consolation. In the end, for Paul Werth, it all turns out as it always turns out: a mixture of pleasure and pain and the understanding that one cannot exist without the other in a life that is fully lived. Herman's conclusion is not unfamiliar, but neither is it out of place in this readable and engaging story. Paul Watkins is the author of six novels, including "Archangel" and "Calm at Sunset," and an autobiography, "Stand Before Your God."