By George Hagen

Random House. 370 pp. $24.95This amiable if decidedly inconsequential book is being published with a good deal more huzzah than generally attends the release of a first novel by an unknown author. ("The Laments is our biggest novel of the summer," says the publisher's press release.) The Laments does bear a certain resemblance to John Irving's hugely successful The World According to Garp -- a story about a peculiar but appealing family, strange and violent things happening to children, people soldiering on despite life's inherent unfairness -- but no mention of these similarities is made in promotional material for the book, so apparently it will be left to the reader to figure out what the fuss summer") is all about.

George Hagen, now in his mid-forties, was born in Zimbabwe (then still known as Rhodesia), eventually moving along to England, New Jersey and Los Angeles. He worked in this last as a screenwriter, though the only George Hagen who turns up in the Internet Movie Database was an actor who played the role of Wladek the Mighty in a 1933 film called "The Way to Love," starring the redoubtable Maurice Chevalier. Whatever. Hagen is an agreeable prose stylist with a nice, quiet sense of humor and a finely developed understanding of human frailty and eccentricity. The Laments reads smoothly and pleasantly, perhaps because there's so little weight to it.

The story begins in South Africa in the 1950s with the birth of a son, their first child, to Howard and Julia Lament. In the same hospital a woman named Mary Boyd has given birth to a premature child, also a boy, who is in an incubator. The doctor gets the idea that her low morale might be improved if she were permitted to nurse the Laments' baby, to which they reluctantly accede. Of course Mary Boyd falls in love with the baby -- the Laments haven't settled on a name for him -- and attempts to abduct him. As they leave the hospital she, her husband and the infant are all killed in an auto crash.

So the doctor, playing God -- or Mephistopheles, depending on one's point of view -- persuades the Laments to take the Boyd baby, and rigs the paperwork to make it appear he is their natural child. Heartsick and angry at the doctor's meddling, they succumb nonetheless to his insistence that "life deals tragedy and opportunity in equal measures," that "only the brave and generous of heart prevail, and only the timid walk away from life's second chances." They take the baby and name him Will, "because only a child with a will of astonishing fortitude could have survived such a sad beginning."

Thus begins a picaresque tale that takes the little family -- eventually augmented by twin boys named Marcus and Julius -- from South Africa to Rhodesia to Bahrain to England to New Jersey. Howard wants to be on the move: "He wasn't going to be like his father, living in the same house his whole life; no, he and Julia were going to see the world like the other Laments. There was the Lament who sailed with Cook to the South Pacific; and Great-grandfather Frederick Lament, who arrived in South Africa in 1899 and started the first bicycle shop in Grahamstown. Howard's two older sisters had followed their husbands to Australia; and his cousin Neville always sent postcards from his trips to Patagonia and Nepal. To be a Lament was to travel."

Will, as he grows into adolescence, sees it a bit differently: "To be a Lament was to be a perpetual stranger." In every place to which it moves, the family doesn't quite fit. Howard's career in engineering, which began with great hopes and ambitions -- "It was Howard's dream to design a purification system as magnificent as the Roman aqueducts. A system in which water passed through a complex series of enlarging and diminishing valves using only gravity as a propellant" -- slowly dwindles into frustration and disappointment. The visionary (or lunatic) who lures him to the United States vanishes, and he is without a job. The "man who'd once planned to irrigate the Sahara" now putters around the house, doing odd jobs badly and feeling sorry for himself.

Julia, outspoken and competent, loves her husband but, remembering how he had once "seemed so brilliant and knowledgeable," now realizes that she will have to take matters into her own hands. Not merely are there three children to care for -- faithful, sweet-tempered Will, the mischievous twins -- but there are bills to be paid, and the credit cards are maxed out. She gets a job, struggles to master it and restores a measure of balance to the family. All along, she and Howard "believed that they shared the same course, and followed the same stars."

Meantime Will is trying to figure out who he is. Literally, in the sense that he doesn't look like his parents or brothers (he is "the solitary son between two couples") and therefore wonders if he is in fact adopted; figuratively as well as literally, in the sense that his identity has been blurred by the family's ceaseless wandering and the adjustments he must constantly make to new places and strange people. He sees his family as fragile and vulnerable, and assumes a nurse-like protectiveness toward it; he is "so obsessed with keeping the family together that he can't think about his own future."

He is powerfully drawn to girls but doesn't quite know what to do around them and goes through a succession of somewhat improbable attachments. One, to a girl named Sally, ends when the family leaves England for New Jersey. Another, to Marina, ends when the Laments' fortunes take another slide and they have to move to a less expensive house a few miles away. Another, to a flower child named Dawn, ends when Will at last figures out that she's a manipulative, selfish little pill. Not until Minna comes along does he get things more or less right, permitting the book to close on a moderately happy note, albeit one that leaves matters more hanging than resolved.

It's a nice story about familiar and durable matters: family, love, identity, loyalty. George Hagen obviously has a good heart, and he has created people who share that admirable quality. As noted above, the novel reads easily and pleasantly, but once it ends you're left with the sensation of having been on a long journey that never went anywhere in particular. It may be true, as has been said, that it is the journey that matters, not the destination, but somehow that doesn't seem entirely the case with The Laments. *

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