COAST TO COAST

By Frederic Raphael

Catbird. 231 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Lev Raphael

Oscar-winning screenwriter Frederic Raphael's fiercely hilarious 19th novel opens like a sitcom episode, but that's appropriate because it starts in the home of Barnaby Pierce, a man who's been writing sitcoms for 30 years and sees all of life that way.

Barnaby's wife, Marion, wants a divorce, and just as they're about to take one last trip together their house is swarming with intrusive, loquacious house hunters feebly shepherded by a real estate agent. One funky couple feels driven to have sex in an upstairs bedroom and resents being interrupted, while someone else tries to steal a rare record album from Barnaby's collection.

In the middle of all this chaos -- which Barnaby consistently and scathingly mocks -- his wife's best friend, Paula, brings over a plate of cookies along with her wish that they not sell the house. Paula's presence is complicated because Barnaby slept with her some years ago, and his wife knows, but Paula doesn't know that Marion knows. The perfect person to wish them bon voyage, as it turns out.

For as a P.G. Wodehouse character might intone, there are "wheels within wheels" here. Not content with the imminent dissolution of their marriage of 32 years, Marion and Barnaby are driving cross-country to Los Angeles to their son Benjie's wedding. They plan to give him Barnaby's '67 Jaguar as a wedding gift, and their itinerary includes stopovers with family and former friends. This trip is very ill-advised, given that after three decades of marriage Marion and Barnaby feel they "still don't fully know, don't fully trust anything about each other, don't trust anything to last, to still be true, to ever have been true possibly."

Small wonder that each place they visit has its own comically nightmarish edge and triggers more arguments about their sexual and emotional past. On a farm in upper New York state, Marion's unhappy sister Vanessa and her grimly God-fearing husband are menaced by their sullen 15-year-old adopted son, Randolph, who sports a .22 rifle and is prone to make barely veiled threats of violence. The Pierces are leaving their dog there, and it may well be shot or otherwise harmed by Randolph, who briefly tries to hold his uncle and aunt hostage.

In Ohio, while they are visiting a former professor and his new young wife, the air is charged with the professor's old romantic fondness for Marion. Before they leave, Barnaby makes a truly bizarre discovery about the professor's living arrangements that he'll enjoy keeping from Marion. It's a strange bit of malice, but Barnaby's reached the stage where he can even interpret Marion's breathing while she's asleep as criticism of him.

Chicago finds them reconnecting with a wealthy former co-writer whose attempt to entertain them turns tragic, and they're forced to decamp. In Minneapolis, they can't hide their marital turmoil from their daughter Stacy, but she tops them with the news that she's pregnant, isn't dating the father anymore, and is living with a retired black basketball player turned TV personality. What's next? A break-in by hapless burglars that brings out the beast in Barnaby and airs more unpleasant truths. Moving onward, they visit Hal, Marion's old lover in Seattle, who was once Barnaby's best friend. Still in love with her, Hal can't stand the games she and Barnaby seem to be playing with him, and he strands Marion at an anonymous mall. When they finally arrive in Los Angeles, there's a melodramatic and unconvincing surprise that constitutes the novel's sole -- and forgivable -- flaw.

With Marion and Barnaby mounting continual comic verbal assaults on everything from each other's word choices and parenting skills to past affairs, their voyage seems equal measures antic and lacerating, a cross between "I Love Lucy" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Both of them are as in love with talking as they may have once thought they were with each other, riding a verbal roller coaster that dives and climbs above the wreckage of their marriage far below. In a typical blast, Marion describes what's kept them together: "We're both in one of your damn comedy scripts. You don't write them, they write you." Barnaby invariably goes for the laughs, like Adam Morris in Raphael's acclaimed novel The Glittering Prizes, who complains that his incessant joking has become "an alternative to thought." And Marion practices a more brutal brand of wit, perhaps because she hasn't had the outlet of seeing her lines on TV (which Barnaby witheringly dismisses as "Prozac for the eyes").

Coast to Coast's portrait of a marriage-turned-car wreck is triumphantly dialogue-driven, and Raphael is superb at capturing lies, pain, evasions, half-thoughts and self-deception. His dialogue is so supple and vivid you may feel tempted to read it aloud, even while you'll be glad you're not miserable enough to be that funny.

Lev Raphael is the book critic for National Public Radio's "Todd Mundt Show."