Reading a novel by Evan Hunter is rathern like watching a better-than-average made-for-television movie: it's slick, entertaining, agreeable, lasts a couple of hours -- and when you come to the end you have almost no recollection of where you've been. Hunter is reliable, he gives good value, he has no evident affectations or pretensions; it's just that there's little depth beneath the veneer of his diversions, little to stir deep interest or emotional engagement.
"Far From the Sea" is a case in point: a mildly appealing story about mildly appealing people told in a mildly appealing way. David Weber, soon to turn 50 years old, flies from New York to Miami to be with his 82-year-old father, who is recuperating from an operation to remove a malignancy. Morris Weber is a cranky, difficult, eccentric old party whom David adored as a child; as an adult he has come to view him in a considerably cooler light, recognizing that he wasted his energies on pies in the sky and philandered to his heart's content.
Still, Morris is his father for all of that, and it pains David deeply to see him wasting away in the indifferent surroundings of the hospital, to watch him succumb to hallucinations and delusions. As he sits by his father's bedside, as he whiles away the hours at his near-vacant Miami Beach hotel, David remembers the happier times of his boyhood and the taste for word games that made his father such a delight to his son:
"When he caught David smoking for the first time, he said, 'Put out that cigarette before you make an ash of yourself.' He described an inept tailor on Fordham Road as a man 'panting for customers,' and then compounded the felony by adding, 'ill-suited to his trade.' Of an uppity barber, he said, 'He thinks he's hair to the throne,' which was better, but only somewhat, than his constant remark about his own baldness, 'Oh, well, hair today, gone tomorrow.' He punned interminably and often outrageously. When his borther Max caught a trout he claimed was two feet long, David's father said, 'You don't expect me to swallow that, do you?' and then immediately added, 'Well, maybe I will, just for the halibut.' When his cousin Bernice began cheating on her violinist husband, David's father said 'He's fiddlying with Bernice roams.'"
It's hard not to like a fellow like that, in spite of his many dislikable qualities, and Hunter manages to make Morris Weber appealing even as he gripes and grouses and harangues. Hunter is also very good at depicting the hospital: the waiting room, where visitors gather in the same place so regularly that they become a "family" unto themselves, and the nurses with their perfunctory yet not-unfeeling concern for their patients. Morris' physician, Dr. Kaplan, is especially sensitively portrayed, alternating as he does between "gobbledegook" designed to gloss over unpleasant medical facts on the one hand and, on the other, genuine frustration and regret over his failure to discover the cause of Morris' continuing illness.
But medical matters are not the only story here. As David Weber conducts his deathwatch (for that, as we sense from the start, is what it is), he is drawn into memories of a different kind: those of his marriage to Molly Regan, a marriage that began in passion but lapsed into disconnection with the death five years before of their only child. "Everything used to be so perfect, he thought. Why did it have to change? Why us?" And as he thinks these dark thoughts, his discontent acquires additional urgency with the appearance of Hillary Watkins, a lissome Englishwoman who quickly finds herself strongly attracted to him; she offers comfort, and a renewal of passion, and escape from the realities of his life.
What he chooses, and how that choice is influenced, is for the reader to discover -- though the reader is most unlikely to be surprised at the final outcome. But there's nothing wrong with that. Evan Hunter is a smooth, professional writer who gives his readers the diversion they desire. He provides a couple of hours of intelligent entertainment, he makes no demands on the reader's imagination, and he keeps the customers satisfied. There are surprisingly few writers of whom that can be said.