THUMBSUCKER

By Walter Kirn

Broadway Books. 300 pp. $14

Poor Justin Cobb. He's 14 when this story begins, living in a bedroom community outside St. Paul, Minn., lost in the middle of the country, wholly without a clue. Poor beautiful Audrey, his mom, who works long hours as a nurse--she's as kind as she is lovely, but she's thrown away her life on a four-star nut case. That would be Mike Cobb, Justin's freaked-out dad, who might have had a decent career in professional football if he hadn't been felled by a (convenient?) injury.

Poor Mike! hounded even now by a sadistic coach from the University of Michigan who's tormented his players throughout the years with sadistic aphorisms designed to illustrate that life is an incomprehensible hell. Poor Mike, saddled with a dad who carries around a portable hard-liquor bar always at the ready and a mom who's not above vomiting into a slide projector box or any other target that gets her attention.

And poor Jerry, Justin's kid brother, although in this ghastly American domestic experiment, Jerry seems to be the rat who's determined to keep swimming.

How was it we were supposed to live in this country? The Cobbs make it up as they go along. Poor Mike Cobb, trying to be a manful man, runs a sporting goods store and shoots deer with a bow and arrow, bringing a carcass home each year to drip and stink in the garage and clog the basement freezer with an endless supply of venison, even though his family hates venison. He daubs his face with mud and tracks mud through the house; he begrudges every bite of food his children take and decrees that they buy off-brands from Sears for all their clothes, virtually guaranteeing that the boys will grow up to be geeks.

They'll be following in his footsteps, of course. This dad has the pure instinct for geekiness--behavior that travels far out into the untracked wilderness of peculiar. He drives onto a nearby reservation and makes sure to order Red Man chewing tobacco from the bemused Native American proprietors. He stops his car for every piece of squashed road kill that he can find so that he can use bits of fur, feather and sinew to tie flies for fly-fishing--another manly sport. He pontificates, he drones, he does everything he can to manage to act like the head of the house, but the Cobb family is utterly adrift in the middle of America, rootless, directionless and desperate. Their home is like an oarless rowboat smack dab in the middle of the Sargasso Sea.

The Cobbs labor under a series of curses. Everything they attempt seems to be doomed. In a kayak race, a bike race, whatever, Mike will try the hardest and almost always comes in second. Audrey spends hours entering a contest where the first prize will be a date with Don Johnson; she ends up "second," along with 500 other "winners." Young Jerry gains and loses weight like a balloon blown up and deflated by a capricious party host. He takes up tennis and, trying to get into a decent prep school, plays just under scholarship level.

Justin sucks his thumb, so seriously that his parents have sent him to camp to break him of the habit. When he's 14 the family dentist hypnotizes him out of it. The dentist can take away the pleasure of his thumb, but not his ravening, anxious hunger, so from then on it's drinks, drugs and more drugs for Justin; a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, Ritalin and more Ritalin. Justin's emotional acorn hasn't fallen far from his dad's oak tree. If Justin meets a young couple, their baby's going to be stoned to its infant eyes on weed. If he gets an all-American job, his boss is bound to be an all-American felon.

This is a picaresque novel, a group of short stories masquerading as a larger work. The last three of these disaster tales have to do with the family's comparatively eager conversion to Mormonism. (They've tried political conservatism and New Age goofiness with notable lack of success.) This part of Walter Kirn's "Thumbsucker" tends to be serious in spite of itself: The author asks and answers the question of why Mormonism has grown so rapidly in the United States and other countries where "progress" has moved so fast and puzzlingly that the individual is left behind.

By the time Mike Cobb has repeatedly threatened and finally attempted suicide, his family is so demoralized that the Mormon missionaries are more than welcome in their home.

The Mormons bring a promise of domestic order. The Cobb family is meant to be together, the missionaries explain winningly; they all picked each other to be with from before they were born, so there's a reason--even if they can't see it--for the chaos in which they find themselves. The missionaries bring a reason to stop drinking and doing strange drugs; they provide an intricate--if dull--social life. And, as one of these chapters points out, they aren't above using sex to sweeten the package.

Will the Cobb family be able to accept this wholesome religious invitation? Will the last chapter here feature a welter of mint ice cream and green jello and relatives picnicking on the lawn? Can America be cured--just like that--of its mass neuroses? I guess you'll have to buy the book to find out.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

Upcoming inBook World

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TIMELINE, by Michael Crichton. In this novel, time-traveling scientists go back to the Middle Ages to rescue a trapped colleague. Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo.

PAST FORGETTING: My Memory Lost and Found, by Jill Robinson. A memoirist and novelist's account of seizure-induced amnesia. Reviewed by Nina King.

BLACK PLANET: Facing Race During an NBA Season, by David Shields. A fan's notes on race and basketball. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

MY KITCHEN WARS: A Memoir, by Betty Fussell. Marriage, divorce and cooking, as lived by Paul Fussell's ex. Reviewed by Deborah Baldwin.

THE RUSSIAN TEA ROOM: A Love Story, by Faith Stewart-Gordon. A memoir by the former owner of the famous New York restaurant. Reviewed by Carolyn See.