The trouble with Paul Kramer - well, there are various troubles with Paul, but the basic one is that he is growing older without growing up. He seems quite adult, actually, when we first tune in on him: a shy, withdrawn 12-year-old during the Eisenhower administration, who appears to be fairly bright but doesn't do well in school, probably because he is so isolated, a sclipsist, a daydreamer.
At 12, Paul already knew what he wanted to do, and he was doing it as well as he could; as inventor and total staff of WPKF, an imaginary radio station, he spent much of his time preparing news programs, announcing ball-games play-by-play, spinning records and accompanying them with chitchat for his nonexistent audience.
Twenty years later, Paul's fantasies have been fulfilled; he has a television talk show in New York, lots of status, a hyperactive sex life, and he is still an adolescent: "He was always surprised by subway mirrors and city windows to discover himself as an adult." "Distant Stations," Jonathan Schwartz's first novel, presents intelligently and in a rich prose texture, the story of how Paul Kramer, in his 33rd year, tried and failed to make his inner reality match the adult image he could see in mirrors.
Adults (which means, effectively, Paul's father, Franklin) do various things that Paul finds distasteful. Mostly, they settle down, they accept a world of restricted possibilities, begin to relate to another person on a stable basis, define and live within their own limitations. They stop fooling around, become serious, accumulate wisdom. Paul does not exactly object to all this in principle (it is hard to tell, in fact, whether he has any principles), but clearly he is not ready; perhaps he never will be ready.
Most of the book takes place in 1974, beginning in May; the Watergate episode has reached its crisis, and a recurring motif in the book's background is the disintegration of the Nixon administration, a parallel to Paul's inner disintegration. His New York job is going sour and he takes a sabbatical in California where his father, a 76-year-old former actor and minor playwright, is living in a quiet retirement.
It his effort to pull it all together, Paul needs a woman, and he is fatally a tracted to pricisely the wrong one; Emily Keller, who is brilliant, sex-ually tireless and inventive and endowed with a father-derived neurosis that interlocks magically with his. She wins his heart when she tells him he is "easily the brightest guy in the media," and when they learn they were both born in New York on the same day, their love affair seems made in heaven.
Emily's problem may be even worse than Paul's; she is the daughter of a minor ventriloquist and haunted by feelings of sibling rivalry for a piece of wood, subject to schizophrenic episodes in which her voice becomes the voice of the dummy, haunted by a sense of inadequacy and waiting for a "commander" to straighten out her life.
What she does for Paul, mostly, is give him a convenient distraction from the pressing business of inventory and reorganization in his own personality. Instead, they become literally partners in crime (the theft of $50,000 from a friend of a friend), and mutual guilt is the surface source of the tension that finally drives them apart.
Below that surface, the problem is communication. In spite of an excellent physical relationship, each proves spiritually impenetrable to the other, and in a thematic monologue, Emily states the problem: "I think that most of us are only tuned in to distant stations where all kinds of things are happening to other people. We listen through the static to their heart-breaks as if we were in some well-protected receiving chamber. Do you know what we overlook? That we are distant stations for anyone else who comes across our transmissions through our static . . .We'll go on forever making believe that locally everything is okay; it's just the other folks who've got the bad end of the deal."
In the final quarrel, they show that they do not really know each other. "You can't live in metaphor forever, Emily hurls at Paul. "After a while, it doesn't work any more." And this is a good quickie analysis of Emily. Paul's reply is also a self-diagnosis disguised as an attack of Emily: "You undermine every important relationship you get yourself into. You're dangerous stuff."
The story ends with Paul nearly a year older and his problems still unsolved, hardly confronted. In one of the final scenes, having resumed his job in New York, he is flying back to California to tie up some loose ends, and he fantasizes his ideal of a totally rootless life. "Was it possible, Paul wondered, to be continuously airborne with the exception of stopovers of no more than 30 minutes? It seemed like a project that would have appealed to someone by now. Weeks and weeks in the air, money no object, zigzagging across the country, a local paper picking the story up first, and then a net-work, and then everyone, a hundred journalists gathered at each arrival zone for a quick glimpse of the perpetual passenger. Paul himself would be that man. 'Why are you doing this?' he would be asked time and time again as he scrambled for his next flight. 'Fear of landing,' he would reply on the run."