A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO THE FRONTIER

By Joanne Meschery

Simon and Schuster. 351 pp. $19.95

Seen in simple relief, Joanne Meschery's "A Gentleman's Guide to the Frontier" is a picaresque novel launched by grief. Two men -- Andrew Marsh, whose wife has just died after a decade-long struggle with cancer, and Reg Vickers, an octogenarian whose son has also just died from cancer -- take off from California in the latter's motor home on a "Roots"-like journey toward the heartland. They seek information about Reg's father, who was born on a slave ship in 1860 but who figured prominently in one of the 19th-century American West's pivotal events, the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Yet this novel is much more than a they-all-went-to-look-for-America tale. Many of Meschery's sometimes ditsy, sometimes dizzying scenes are meant to frame, in the spirit but not in the style of Walker Percy, the cultural malaise that afflicts our country. When Marsh and Reg run into a group of motor-homed SOARS (Singles on American Roads) at a campground in Utah, one of the women they meet assures Marsh, "We're all depressed. Take a look in the mirror if you don't believe me." The act of confessing to Marsh "I nearly died young" fills this woman with pleasure.

The novel begins with Marsh on the ocean, sailing solo in a race from San Francisco to Hawaii. He has spent the last several years watching cancer drain his wife, Ginny; he decides he has to get away. And -- you guessed it, of course -- it is at the midpoint of his journey across the Pacific that he gets the radio message -- his wife is failing. Fortunately, Marsh makes it back in time to see his wife before she dies, and, again fortunately, the grief in "A Gentleman's Guide to the Frontier" is unadulterated by guilt.

Soon after his wife's death, Marsh meets Reg Vickers, whose son, a patient in the same cancer ward as Marsh's wife, has just died. Fate has somehow sealed these two sufferers together in Reg's motor home (he calls it The Establishment), and has propelled them toward the Midwest in a search for either the truth or simply for information about Reg's father. Marsh goes along because he does not know what to do with his life; Reg tells him that if he doesn't do something he will be "doomed forever to small behavior."

Very soon after Marsh hooks up with Reg Vickers, the old man's story takes over the novel. Speaking in a wonderfully formal and extravagant style, Reg takes us back to his father's birth aboard a slave ship crossing the Atlantic, across half the continent and into Kansas, where Algernon Vickers will find a home. Reg is a poet-visionary; his story is elegant and from deep, deep in his heart. So consumed is he by his storytelling that Reg at one point tells Marsh: "When you reach my age you sometimes fail to remember where one person ends and you begin."

Meschery alternates the scenes where Reg is telling his story with scenes featuring the ragtag members of a kind of motor home convoy Marsh and Reg have picked up along the way. The group of SOARS is an odd one, their conversations generally so discontinuous as to seem surreal, their concerns ludicrous. For example, as Reg recounts the harrowing details of Custer's Last Stand and such related events as Wounded Knee, various of the campers are concerned with the death of Princess Grace. Talk about Mother Teresa seems interchangeable with talk about TV game shows.

Ultimately, the conflation of Reg's story, which reminds us of a past in which we can take little pride, and the trivial concerns of the SOARS as they crisscross the country, is confusing. Is the point that we should care more about our society's injustices? Is this all some kind of arcane exercise in the surreal? Are we meant to muse on historiographic questions such as the nature of history understood by the heart versus history mined from the intellect?

"A Gentlemen's Guide to the Frontier" explodes in so many emotional directions that you find yourself looking for that telling detail that will fix for you the writer's emotional or intellectual coordinates. While Meschery has a wonderful eye for American arcana and for the oddly disjunctive nature of human interaction, her skills at fashioning a novel into a coherent whole seem less well developed. Or maybe it's just that she's saying anecdotes are above and beyond history, that the past can be whatever you need it to be, and, therefore, that the life of stories is life itself.

The reviewer was a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle citation for excellence in reviewing.