Deeply romantic yet unsentimental, Brian Morton's "Starting Out in the Evening" examines the idea of intellectual life without turning it into a precious seashell treasure. Through his characters, Morton (the executive editor of Dissent and the author of a stunning previous novel, "The Dylanist") assures us that a life spent nourishing the mind will be, on the day you draw your last breath, its own reward. But he also knows that meanwhile, if you don't keep yourself wide open, life can turn you into a walking clichi -- the kind of person who believes that buying a new suit every 20 years or so might mark them as shallow, who refuses to read anyone but the approved old-timers and who misses out on other kinds of brilliance because of it.
Morton builds his story around three central characters: Leonard Schiller is a novelist in his 70s, a second-string but respectable talent who produced only a small handful of books. Schiller likes to regard himself as a thinker and spends his time hanging out with his aged intellectual cronies, but Morton shows us that his life has been shaped just as greatly by the love of his daughter, Ariel, and his late wife. Schiller is approached by Heather, a brash young student who'd fallen in love with his first two books as a teenager and who wants to write her graduate thesis about his work: She flirts with him, flatters him and almost talks herself into falling in love with him, although she's not physically attracted to him. At the heart of the novel is Ariel, a dancer-turned-aerobics instructor who's approaching her 40s and dealing with her disappointment that she may never have a child. Her father's brainy discourse makes her head whirl, but she loves him unconditionally in a way that he can't love himself.
As a stylist, Morton is refreshingly straightforward. Instead of bundling his prose in heavy-duty metaphors and ornate language, he builds emotional contours for his characters out of simple, light layers. He shifts points of view from chapter to chapter. Here, Heather tries to make sense of her muddled feelings after she's spent a single chaste night with Schiller in his apartment: "He glanced up at her shyly while taking a sip of his Sanka. She could feel his desire for her. It was immense, breaking over her like a wave. In high school she used to watch reruns of 'The Avengers,' and she loved the way Mr. Steed would look at Mrs. Peel: a gaze that was appreciative but not acquisitive, a gaze filled with desire but without vulgarity ... She and Mr. Steed, though they were mad about each other, never touched; they made love only with their eyes. And thinking about this now, she realized that Schiller would never ask for a repetition of their night together: he was content to be her Mr. Steed."
Morton cares for all his characters. He doesn't pass judgment on Heather, showing us the insecurity that's the flip side of her snotty ambition, and he clearly adores and respects Schiller. But in the end, it's Ariel he loves most tenderly. She doesn't feel pain or joy any less acutely because she doesn't like to read: As a former dancer, she seems to know that it's not the only way to leap. "The unexamined life is not worth living" is one of those pleasant little truisms you see on canvas book totes, but "Starting Out in the Evening" reminds us that living always comes first. Even more important than having a hat is having a place to hang it.