THE HERE AND NOW

By Gregg Easterbrook

St. Martin's. 246 pp. $23.95 In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say first that I'm a devoted Gregg Easterbrook fan. (I've met him once and given him a hug. More embarrassingly, I once met another man who had the word "Easter" stuck on his name tag and showered him with praise, until I realized he was a whole other Easter-person, a literary perfect stranger.) So from my point of view, "The Here and Now" is chocolate cake. How could it not be? However, this novel may not be for everyone.

Easterbrook plays fast and loose with the fictional form. He's an essayist, sermonizer, philosopher-theologian who chooses, when it pleases him, to use the novel to communicate. He's more than happy, though, to veer away at any moment from character and plot, stick his own head into the story and start gabbing away at the reader. This ethereal intrusion may be seen as either old-fashioned and Victorian or as ultra "modern," employing the Verfremdungseffekt, as Bertolt Brecht once so engagingly labeled it. Whatever you call it, the "alienation effect" is Gregg Easterbrook elbowing past his characters any time he wants to, taking time out for a chat.

It's just as well, since in this case the author is almost always more interesting than his fictional creations. The hero of "The Here and Now," for instance, is fairly generic -- a man on the far side of middle age, who has lost his spiritual way. Carter Morris, in the present time, is an avaricious, utterly amoral attorney, poised to make the corporate deal of a lifetime. It's a foul, vile, ugly deal, engineered to bilk the consumer both coming and going, and even a year ago might have been considered a little over the top. Now, with all the assortment of corporate high crimes before us, and tales of, for instance, chemical companies that make money selling pesticides and then make more money selling drugs to treat the cancers that their pesticides may cause, this deal may seem pedestrian, even ho-hum.

Carter is in a position to become a multi-multi-millionaire from all this, but he takes no particular joy in it. He has no family, no friends, no lovers, wives or children. He's haunted, moreover, by the memory of his brother, hideously wounded in one of America's many pointless wars.

Never mind! Carter set out to make money; he's made it, and in a week or so he's going to make more money than he ever thought possible. Except that on his way to the various preliminary meetings that will set up the final deal in the here and now, he's visited by several versions of his earlier past self -- selves who take him tumbling back into the worlds of childhood, high school adolescence, a youth spent first as a '60s demonstrator and then as a conscientious objector working in a veterans hospital for the hideously maimed, then finally as a self-defined pariah, working all alone in law school toward a goal he doesn't want to achieve.

There's no particular point in saying this has been done many times before, from Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" to Neil Landau's very recent romantic comedy, "Johnny on the Spot." Easterbrook cares as much about plot as he does about character -- i.e., not very much. He's really interested in salvation, in the redemption of the immortal soul (if there is one), and the concept of a good-natured but blundering God who needs all the help from humans he can get. In short, if the world is an overwhelmingly unpleasant place, we have an overwhelming array of choices for how to deal with that, but they actually boil down to two. Deal yourself in to the corrupt cosmic crap game, or pull yourself together and deal yourself out.

Carter mourns his lost '60s idealism: All the demonstrations, love-ins, wonderful drugs, heedless hopes, have come to nothing. His first high-school romance came to nothing. His best childhood friend -- nothing. The later, actual love of his life? She, too, has disappeared, faded away, become part of his tapestry of disillusion. But what influence does the past exert upon the present, and the present upon the future? Once we've noticed that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, should we hop right in the basket and go along for the ride or try to wrest that basket away from whatever stumblebum might be carrying it -- assuming that a beneficent God is out doing some other errand, that he can't, actually, keep his eye on every sparrow? It doesn't matter if our good deeds produce only defeat; that doesn't get us off the hook of doing them.

Well, what a sermon! But that's what Easterbrook has written, a thought-provoking sermon, and "The Here and Now" probably deserves an evangelical, "enthusiastic," tent-meeting review.