LEADING THE CHEERS

By Justin Cartwright

Carroll & Graf. 256 pp. $23.95

This strange novel, in some ways rewarding and in others irritating, is the fourth book by a native South African who was educated in the United States and England and now lives in London. "Leading the Cheers" was given a Whitbread Award last year (the prize, one of England's most notable, is awarded in three categories: the novel, which went to this book; first novel; and book of the year).

That was good news for Justin Cartwright, but the jury's decision may have reflected sentiments among the British intelligentsia toward these United States. "Leading the Cheers" cannot be described as an anti-American novel, for it expresses much admiration and affection for certain aspects of this country, but a central theme is that "there was a better America, an innocent America which has passed." Though Cartwright is elegiac about that lost America, he is far less kind to the America that, in his view, has replaced it.

Cartwright's protagonist and narrator is Dan Silas, an Englishman who lived in Michigan in the 1960s--his father worked for General Motors--and attended Hollybush High School, where he graduated in the Class of 1968. Now he has been invited back to the States to be the keynote speaker at that class's 30th reunion:

"Movies have been made and books written about reunions because they are particularly charged. You are invited, almost obliged, to consider the quirks of memory. Other people similarly have a duty to rummage in the past, and the license to reminisce, so freely handed around in this way, is not always welcome. . . . Reunions confront you with your youthful self, and that can be nerve-wracking, because your contemporaries take no account of the intervening years and the efforts you have made to become something different."

Even though Dan knows this, the reunion still turns out to be a lot more than he'd bargained for. His best friend of three decades ago, Gary Beaner, has been "in and out of mental homes for many years"; he fancies himself to be Pale Eagle, "born into a family of English settlers in the Ohio Valley," captured by Indians and reared as an Ojibwa. Dan's old girlfriend, Gloria Swarthout, the bosomy cheerleader, "for ever joined" in his memory to Monticello because he and she made love on Jefferson's bed there while on a school trip, now tells him he made her pregnant that day and that the daughter born to her was murdered only two years ago by a serial killer.

These revelations come at a turning point in Dan's life. He has only recently sold his share in the London advertising agency that he and a friend owned and, having spent most of his adulthood in his own "carefully composed world," is "now keen to open myself to random influences." The reunion, obviously, offers ample opportunity for that. Not merely must he face uncomfortable realities about two people whom he once cared for; he finds himself beset by new information that calls into question many of his assumptions about his past and makes him confront the imperfection of memory.

Still further complications ensue when Gary and Gloria make separate but equally demanding requests of him. Gary/Pale Eagle wants him to go to the British Museum in London and "recover for my people"--i.e., steal--"sacred scrolls" that were removed from the United States and stored there. Gloria wants him to go to the penitentiary and interview her/their daughter's murderer, to find out whether she suffered before her death and, if she did, in what way.

Gary, in other words, is asking him to recover artifacts of the aforementioned "better America," while Gloria is asking him to go face to face with what has replaced it:

". . . Serial killing, which takes up so much of the prints and so many television hours, is the final affront to the American--and Jeffersonian--dream, because it is carried out not by crazy black people or deracinated Latinos, but by the high school misfit, the plump boy with ill-fitting glasses or by that silent boy who collected knives, or by some boy with a stiflingly Christian mother. And serial killing is in appallingly bad taste, over-consumption and excess in a way Europeans--without good reason--think of as essentially American."

The problem with the last part of that passage is that even while Cartwright denies the European vision of America he thus describes, he adopts it himself. On one side he posits the Jeffersonian and Emersonian prophecy for America, and, on the other, the contemporary reality that, he suggests, has erased it. But the country, its past and its present, is more complicated than that. Cartwright knows America better than many other outsiders who have written about it, but he doesn't know it well enough.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com