WHITE PALACE By Glenn Savan Bantam. 406 pp. $7.95, paper
Max Baron was 25 years old when his wife, the beautiful and adored Janey, was killed in an auto accident. Now it is two years later, and Max is still lost in grief. He works slavishly at his job in a St. Louis advertising agency, plows his way through the literary classics at night, and resists all efforts to lure him back into the mating game. He has made "a conscious decision to be celibate for a while," he tells a friend, and explains:
"I've thought it over, and it's just the best thing for me right now. I'm still scared, Horowitz. I'm scared of complications and messiness and things getting out of control -- and that tells me I'm not ready for a relationship. And if I'm not ready for a relationship, then I'm not interested in going through the whole dishonest routine of dating women who I have no intention of taking seriously."
He means every word of it, but before he can catch his breath Max is surrounded by complications and messiness and things getting out of control. At a seedy bar he encounters Nora Cromwell, a waitress at a White Palace hamburger joint. She is nearly 15 years his senior, and from an utterly alien culture; she lives in Dogtown, a community of laborers and hicks, and she is in every respect the antithesis of Max. But she immediately fastens upon him, entices him to her shabby house and seduces him.
To his astonishment and befuddlement, Max is swept away. She's wrong for him in almost every way, yet he cannot resist her. "Nora," he says, "I don't know what's happening to me, or why it's happening -- half the time I don't even believe it's happening -- but this is the truth, and you'd better believe me. I've never wanted any woman as much as I want you. Never. Not even my wife."
Thus Max is "transferred, like a prisoner in shackles, from one cage to another," from his grief for Janey to his hunger for Nora. As both of them know, it is not a match made in heaven. "You're going to dump me," Nora tells him, "and then you're going to find yourself a nice young girl who's been to college and knows how to conduct herself and won't be an embarrassment to you. And before you know it, I'll just be this crazy thing that happened to you a long time ago that it shames you even to think about."
So it seems. On the infrequent occasions when Max and Nora venture from her house, he fears that they may encounter his friends; the shame and embarrassment she arouses in him are the shoals upon which their odd romance seems certain to founder. Yet something peculiar is quietly taking place: The longer they are together, the more Max finds himself falling into Nora's mannerisms and style. He slips unwittingly into her idiom, he lapses into an approximation of her slovenliness, he takes to drink with a gusto that nearly matches her own.
Their relationship is "Pygmalion" in reverse: The student gradually lowers the professor to her level. But "White Palace" is more than a comedy about the clash of classes. It is also, more seriously, a novel about fate. Its central theme is stated by Max's former mother-in-law:
"Everyone's completely overblown this idea of approving of people, of liking people. You get thrown in with certain people in this life, most of whom you had absolutely no say in choosing -- your parents, your children, whoever you've had the strange luck to fall in love with, maybe a friend or two -- and those are the people it's your duty to love because those are the people who belong to you. It's not necessary to like them or admire them or approve of them. If love were contingent on that, what value would it have?"
It's a persuasive argument, one that compels Max to reexamine many of his most basic assumptions and that steers the novel toward an agreeable, if not entirely convincing, conclusion. "White Palace" is Glenn Savan's first novel -- published as one of the initial titles in Bantam's New Fiction series -- and on the whole it is an accomplished, mature piece of work. Not merely is the complex relationship between Max and Nora subtly delineated, but there are several terrific subplots, the best of them involving Max's labors in the advertising office; Savan, a former ad man, knows whereof he speaks. He is guilty of occasional infelicities of prose and a tendency toward didacticism; but "White Palace" is a serious entertainment, and a far cut above the run of contemporary "yuppie fiction."