THE MAN WHO OWNED VERMONT By Bret Lott Viking. 231 pp. $16.95
Rick Wheeler is a route salesman -- and a good one. His products are RC Cola and a couple of adjunct labels, which he peddles to grocery stores in western Massachusetts. He regularly outsells the other men working under his supervisor. Even when his marriage founders and his wife moves out, he keeps on selling -- in fact, his figures rise.
The keys to Wheeler's salesmanship emerge gradually from Bret Lott's skilled first novel: He's clearly a charmer, who tenaciously resists self-examination, concentrating on selling to keep from confronting himself. At bottom, of course, he cares nothing about selling. One day after handing his boss' boss a transparently insincere line, he explains in his narrator's voice: "It was a load ... my telling him all this, but the thing was that he knew it was a load, and that he knew that I knew. That was what a good salesman was about, after all. Who could tell the best lie."
Wheeler's world contains the seeds of unrelieved dreariness: working-class characters, most of them divorced; the setting of wintry New England; even the brand of cola, which may not have "improved" its formula but still can't qualify as classic. Yet the author has invested these elements with surprising vividness, even a kind of stark beauty.
However unconscious he may be of his motives, Wheeler is a sharp observer. Here he is upstairs in the friends' country house where he and Paige, his wife, are spending the night shortly before the rift: "I put both hands on the sill. The window was old, divided into twelve panes. I looked through the glass, saw that each pane was the original, trees and stars and black hills all bending and rolling as I moved my head back and forth behind the glass."
Earlier, in the kitchen of the same house, Wheeler had watched carefully as twilight leaked away: "The window and the light out there made me feel as if somehow the air were drawing the light from inside out. I felt like light was leaving the kitchen as the place slowly grew dark, the stove disappearing into a black square, the cupboards, sink, refrigerator all disappearing as the land outside drew everything through the window to it."
The story itself traces the progress of the Wheelers' marriage, through a collapse Rick doesn't understand. In the crucial incident, frazzled by traffic impeding their route out of town for a country weekend, Rick ignores Paige's pleas to stop and find her a bathroom. Even though she is pregnant, he drives bullheadedly on until he notices that she's in tears. By the time he pulls up at a filling station, it's too late. She miscarries inside the ladies' room. The damage is so disproportionate to the fault that Rick gives up on making things right again. Only his upwardly ratcheting sales total prevents his friends from immediately sensing his despair.
Lott lets Rick work his way out of his predicament with commendable restraint. There are no blinding epiphanies of the kind so beloved of English professors (even though Lott himself teaches the subject at the College of Charleston) but so seldom experienced in real life. Instead, there are friends' gentle probings, the perspicacity of a divorce'e whom Rick dates after Paige moves out, and a hunting trip during which he realizes that his wife will forgive him if he lets her.
"The Man Who Owned Vermont" is less successful in its style. Wheeler's narration is a bit too controlled for the confessions of a route man. But the book bears an unforced shapeliness to it that augurs the development of a talented novelist. The reviewer is a Washington editor and writer.