SHOOTING THE HEART

By Paul Cody

Viking. 254 pp. $23.95

Say this much for Paul Cody's lugubrious, portentous and manipulative novel "Shooting the Heart": It has found a way to make the feckless pontification at your average American studies academic conference even more irritating, by piping it into the meandering confessional musings of a would-be sociopath. Earl Madden, our protagonist, is a English instructor at a private high school and now a heavily medicated patient at a Boston-area mental hospital; he has formed the vivid conviction that he has killed his wife, Joan. As he struggles to conjure this and other traumas to life, Earl manages to construct a sort of master-narrative for the meaning of it all. He gives us obsessively detailed accounts of the careers of notorious serial killers (never named in full, for the apparent reason that they are to serve as ominous American Everymen), patched together with stray references to the sin-and-death-haunted European settlement of North America. Here, for instance, is how he describes the twisted coming-of-age of a hippie cult leader-cum-monster whom he coyly calls "Charlie" (one note of caution -- Earl often speaks in disjointed fragments. They illustrate. His disjointed state of mind. In mercilessly gimmicky fashion):

"We think of him as a West Coast kind of guy. Beach Boys, Hollywood Hills. Cover of Life magazine. That stare, that glare. Little guy too. But this started, the all of it, in the East and Midwest. Heartland. Or started far earlier, with John Winthrop on ship Arbella. Poor frail boat on mighty ocean. Huddled, cold, sick. For we must consider that. Sermon on board. Scared three-quarters to death. Heaving, rising seas. Tossed boat like toy. 1630. . . . We shall be as a city upon a hill. . . . The eyes of all people are upon us. In sermon. On board."

I don't know about you, but I think Earl is trying to say something about the irretrievably depraved character of America's founding. All right, so it might be a bit of stretch to picture the scruffy Beatles-obsessed Charles Manson (Damn! I gave the last name away!) in a buckle hat and breeches on that famed errand in the wilderness; Cody's bigger point is that this is one sick country, dude. And if the self-evident Manson-Winthrop connection doesn't seal the case, Earl offers us Charlie Starkweather as Huck Finn, and the doom-laden California journalism of Joan Didion as a precedent for his rather woolly interpretation of the American experience.

Indeed, attentive readers will note that Didion is something of an obsession for Earl, and Cody. Earl's wife is named Joan, after all, and we get the uneasy sense that she is a stand-in for the unsentimental chronicler of late 20th-century American malaise: She, like Didion, is a diminutive, slender woman -- "a few inches over five feet." Like Didion, she had lived in California before moving to the East Coast. She even has, as Didion does, "small features" and "a thin gap between two front teeth."

Or maybe I was just driven to speculate along such lines while being trapped for so long in the company of a fictional companion who does little but listlessly record his every moment, from early childhood on, of alienation, of gin-soaked violent fantasy, of vicarious identification with murderous male predators. Indeed, one starts to long for Earl's terse semaphore-style histories of America when he dilates on "the hidden scary parts of my brain, where neurons and synapses flash and crackle in the darkness like lightning at night in deep space." Or when, in coaxing one of his countless real-life serial-killing set pieces into his overactive imagination, he produces this unlikely simile in the mind of a soon-to-be-slain woman: "The trunks of the small trees were the size of the arms of children, and Dorothy thought that the smaller branches and twigs were like the arteries and veins running through the bodies of children."

The suspense in the dreary plot of "Shooting the Heart" is supposed to derive from guessing whether Earl did in fact murder Joan, or managed merely to delude himself into believing he did, with Joan understandably availing herself of the nearest exit. (As Earl himself offers in a rare moment of unenraptured self-awareness, "Why would some dumb [expletive] insist on telling these stories to his wife?") Yet Cody strews so many menacing bits of American ugliness through the novel, the real mystery is why Earl doesn't snap a whole lot sooner. His careworn father gets laid off at the supermarket one day and takes to the living room couch for about a year of drunken muttering, until Earl's mom has him institutionalized. Earl's mom is a reasonably saintly, hardworking single parent -- very much in contrast to the usual profile of serial killers' family histories. But there's another single mom in the house next door, bitterly resenting the demands of caring for her Down's syndrome son, and Cody seizes upon her as the requisite older female monster. She is perpetually baking, and as the boy Earl is visiting one day, she abruptly grabs the back of his head, tightly yanks his hair and thrusts his head toward the open oven door, announcing, "This is what they did to the Jews." For good measure, she calls Earl's house in the dead of night to tell him she intends to "smash your disgusting, snotty face," to inquire about the state of his boyish genitalia and regale him with graphic descriptions of the Irish potato famine, all the while appearing to work herself into a heightened state of sexual arousal.

And so on. Plenty of writers, from Jim Thompson to James M. Cain, have made insightful use of the normal-seeming sociopath as the basis for provocative and lively works of fiction. "Shooting the Heart," on the other hand, is so eager to impress with its edgy ingenuity that it completely neglects the first rule of such explorations: The characters propelling a book like Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" are creepy precisely because they are entirely in thrall to their surface-level sunny normalcy, not because they're harboring some grad-school hunches about the nation's rapacity. Once you foreshadow your central character's murderous urges in such blaring, relentless fashion, they become as flat and unpersuasive as, well, a reading of the Manson family murders back into the mists of colonial history. Earl may or may not be a violent criminal, but "Shooting the Heart" is a lot like the aftermath at a crime scene, and as such, it prompts me to second the sage counsel that cops offer to rubbernecking passersby: Move along. There's nothing to see here.