THE WALKING TOUR

By Kathryn Davis

Houghton Mifflin. 264 pp. $23

The premise of Kathryn Davis's fourth novel is inviting. Two American couples, old friends with a complicated history of friendship and rivalry both personal and professional, are among about a dozen people on a walking tour "in the footsteps of the legendary Manawydan on his journey through Bronze Age Wales." The coastal landscape through which they travel is beautiful but rough and dangerous, and eventually exacts its price; two members of the tour disappear, both presumed to be dead though only one body is found. The repercussions of this loss are large, lasting and in some respects wholly unexpected.

It is a variation on the venerable Grand Hotel or Ship of Fools plot: Take a small group of people, a mixture of strangers and friends, transplant them to a somewhat exotic and unfamiliar locale, stir up a bit of trouble, and watch what happens. Unfortunately, though, resemblances between the aforementioned tales and The Walking Tour end just about there. Davis has a reputation in certain circles as an accomplished writer of literary fiction, but this novel serves mainly as a reminder that merely aspiring to write literature is one thing and actually doing so is quite another.

The Walking Tour in fact strikes me as a case study of just about everything that is wrong with American literary fiction as the century and the millennium grind to a close. Whether Davis is a graceful writer is perhaps in the eye of the beholder -- this beholder, for whatever it's worth, has no patience at all with a "literary" writer who persistently misuses "like" and doesn't seem to know the difference between "who" and "whom" -- but she quite indisputably is an inept storyteller. Musing endlessly on the various thematic undercurrents that she believes to run beneath the surface of her story, she succeeds only in suffocating her narrative under a blanket of gassy philosophizing.

She further compounds her difficulties by resting the entire enterprise in the hands of a narrator whose credibility is suspect from the outset. This is Susan Rose, the only child of Bobby Rose and his wife Carole Ridingham, now an adult and living alone in her parents' house in Maine. She is pouty and humorless, which certainly doesn't help, but her biggest problem is that she wasn't in Wales when all the trouble took place. Her narrative, such as it is, is pieced together from "a stack of court transcripts and a gray metal box that's actually the computer containing Ruth Farr's journal, as well as a pile of unlabeled photographs, and the postcards and letters my mother sent me from Wales."

At one point Susan describes what she calls "a scene composed of one part conjecture, one part fact." This is legitimate enough as a way to tell stories, or some stories. But as the reader labors through this tale, reading long stretches of dialogue and being drawn into the innermost thoughts of various members of the tour, the question occurs over and over again: How does Susan know this? She was 13 years old when these events took place, and an ocean away: How can she assume the narrative voice with such unimpeachable authority?

This is not a trivial question. If the reader is skeptical about the narrator's omniscience, or near-omniscience, then everything else in the novel becomes questionable. It is exactly the same problem that undermines Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, which in every other respect is vastly superior to The Walking Tour. It is hard to believe, in that instance, that the young woman who tells the story could possibly know what she claims to about the private and inner lives of her father and uncle; it is even harder, in this instance, to believe that Susan Rose knows so much about what went on in Wales, in her absence, many years before.

The tour about which she writes was occasioned by the decision of her father and his partner, Coleman Snow, to sell the business they had built together. Called SnowWrite & RoseRead, it was "the result of two men caught in a bar during a blizzard, and eventually became a sinister tool that changed how people saw the world." It was "a business built on the idea that no one owns anything, especially not an idea," a computer program that permitted users to rewrite the words of others, to change their texts online, leaving Susan to ask: "How did it work, I wonder? By which I mean morally, not technically. What came over people that they'd let other people fool around with their words, their sentences, their ideas, their dreams? Was it because the human wish to be innocent is stronger than the wish to be original?"

Whatever: Suffice it to say that the questions raised by SnowWrite & RoseRead are not half so interesting as we are meant to believe, for one thing because they are never really worked into the heart of the novel. For the purposes of the plot, what matters is that the sale of the business left both men wealthy and at liberty to take the walking tour, which is the bright idea of Snow's wife, Ruth Farr, a remarkably unpleasant woman whose capacity for self-righteousness and mischief is bottomless. She and Susan's mother have known each other since they were schoolgirls, and their friendship, such as it is, is heavily colored by suspicion and antagonism: "When two people are constantly thrown together, if one of them doesn't rise to the top they'll melt together into a single monstrous creature with a single monstrous destiny, like something in a dreary Celtic tale."

Like so much else in this novel, that sentence simply does not withstand scrutiny. This is, to be sure, "a dreary Celtic tale," but nothing else in those words makes sense; it all sounds good (if that's the kind of sound you like), but it's meaningless. If Davis is trying to say that Carole and Ruth are competitors, each trying to gain the advantage over the other, why can't she just say it, instead of indulging herself in windy, empty blather?

The answer, it seems, is that windy, empty blather is her stock in trade. To wit: "That's the way we live these days, in an endless state of cause without effect, which is to say endlessly waiting, waiting, waiting," or "Death was the one thing you could count on. Stars died just like flowers," or "When you found yourself in possession of something dangerous there was only one thing to do, and that was to lock the dangerous thing up in a work of art."

The latter is the "fierce conviction" of Susan's mother, a highly regarded artist, and obviously is intended to be a key not merely to her art but to her eccentric behavior as well. But the key doesn't open anything except the portals of ennui. Like so many other American writers of what passes these days for literary fiction, Davis is in love with the sound of her voice but rarely pauses to ask whether the ways in which she employs it are interesting or coherent. She gives evidence of being an intelligent person, but here she never rises above self-conscious literary mannerisms. The Walking Tour is a trip to nowhere.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.