Tommy Hammond, poor sap, is the chief male character in "Heart's Desire," Gwyneth Cravens' second novel. Let's try to guess what Tommy does for a living.
"Excuse my nomenclature," he says, when Effie, his mother, stares him down for calling green onions "scallions."
"I am fully visible," he replies when Effie says she wants to take a look at him. "Perhaps a side view will help one familiarize oneself."
When his wife Judy asks him about premonitions, he replies, "Well, first you have to define 'premonition.' Is it premonition qua premonition, is it a conclusion you have arrived at unconsciously because of an agglomerate of subliminal facts, or is it actually a metaphysical event? Get your definitions straight, and then we can discuss the value of said matter."
Finally, Tommy tells Effie (as she recalls) that "the unexamined life is not worth living and that man is a thinking reed, or something like that."
Tommy is a doctoral student in philosophy. He's also the most ludicrous caricature to sink a "literary" novel in a long time.
Tommy, though, is only part of the problem with Cravens' book, which mostly concerns the ways the Hammond family -- and especially its women -- faced the late 1960s. Unlike her first novel, "Love and Work" (1982), about a budding affair between two coworkers, it offers little suspense and less charm. This book just lies there like a bored dog.
The Hammonds live in Arizona. Patriarch Tom Hammond Sr., 52, attended Texas Tech, became an engineer and strikes reader and kin alike as a typical Sunbelt conservative. His wife Effie, former assistant dean of women at Cibola State, subscribes to Positive Wisdom, a booklet of the Positive Christianity Fellowship, and says things such as, "We're having so dadgummed much fun." Tommy is the oldest child of this conventional union, followed by prepubescent Nancy and younger brother Bud, who will eventually make his way into mescaline, boot camp and helicopter school.
Tommy, though, is the child who engages Effie most. "No one was more brilliant at Cibola State," she gloats. "He's too big for any philosophy department."
While attending Cibola, Tommy met Judy in the cafeteria -- she dished out the split-pea soup and he ogled her from the line. Since Judy comes from a family that "kept car parts in the front yard" and finished only two years at Cibola herself, she's happy just to have a husband "without a police record." Tommy and Judy are married when we first meet them, back visiting Arizona from New York City with their daughter, Maura. Tommy combines graduate school in New York with a job in a photo lab, and Judy types dissertations.
Having introduced this cast, Cravens alternates narrative voices, allowing the main '60s business of "Heart's Desire" to take place -- the unfolding of various enlightenments.
Tommy assumes revolutionary airs, joins a campus radical group and never hunkers down to his philosophical work. Judy, who starts out feeling "truly privileged to be his wife," experiences liberation (reading "Sisterhood Is Powerful," using the phrase "far out") thanks to Viktor Kassell, a sexy wanderer. After Tom Sr. dies, Effie comes to terms with his death by talking to him once in a while. She realizes that there's still more to life. Nancy becomes a teen-age woman.
None of these hackneyed plot elements dooms "Heart's Desire." Doom issues, rather, from Cravens' listless prose, which belongs to the "bear-with-me" school of contemporary creative writing. "Bear-with-me" novelists spend years piling up observed details in notebooks -- usually in words as worn out as the details themselves. They drop them throughout their novels like sleep pellets, regardless of relevance to the advancing action.
Thus we get lots of passages in "Heart's Desire" that tell us the "leaves of the cottonwood gave off a sugary fragrance," or "a lawn mower whirred next door," or "a mild wind stirred the ashes in the barbecue," or someone's "legs and arms were long and white," or any number of things that make no difference to you, me or the Hammonds. The usual pop culture props -- "Star Trek," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," 7-Eleven stores -- fill out the landscape.
Because Gwyneth Cravens edits fiction at The New Yorker, one can't help seeing "Heart's Desire" as emblematic of the magazine's reigning literary taste. One reason The New Yorker has become a magazine whose subscribers outnumber its readers is dullness -- boring sentences, boring topics.
Literature, qua literature, requires more.