The Half-life of Happiness

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'The Half-Life of Happiness' by John Casey.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published March 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There's a school of writing that seems to take as one of its tenets the idea that men who are excessively proud, clueless, insecure and ultimately emotionally helpless are really very interesting people, if we just get to know them a bit. To be fair, "The Half-Life of Happiness" isn't quite as Richard Ford-y as all that. John Casey -- whose "Spartina" won the 1989 National Book Award -- has peopled his new novel with carefully wrought characters, men and women (and children) alike, and almost every one has his or her little nasty streaks and curiously likable qualities. It's just that, ultimately, he wants us to feel the most sympathy for his main character, Mike Reardon (family man, lawyer, principled liberal). He might have succeeded if his narrative hadn't gotten bogged down with excess emotional and physical details.

Mike overexplains and overanalyzes everything, which annoys his two small daughters, Edith (from whose point of view part of the story is told) and Nora, and eventually helps alienate him from his wife, Joss, a maker of experimental films and a champion wisecracker. Mike's life suddenly plunges into turmoil: His closest friend commits suicide, his wife falls madly in love with another friend's girlfriend, and he decides, in one of his less-rational moments, to run for a congressional seat, a move that ends up causing embarrassment and distress for himself and his family. (His reasoning for running for office is never really clear, other than that, in his desperation, he has to race toward something.)

When Mike's friends and family gang up on him, accusing him (sometimes with jaunty bonhomie and sometimes with brutal coldness) of overdissecting everything, you feel a stab of sympathy for him -- he is, after all, just being the only kind of guy he knows how to be. But we lose patience with him before long because the whole novel is an overdissection, a tea tray piled too high with annoyingly witty dinner-party banter, dull descriptions of political machinations and tedious analysis of feelings. Shortly after learning of his wife's infidelity, Mike wanders unwittingly into a lesbian bar and, over a drink, gazes in befuddlement at a soap opera on TV: "On the screen, another man and a woman spoke to each other inconclusively, and the program was over. It occurred to him that he was caught in the daily episodes of a soap opera that Joss wrote, that Joss and Bonnie ... wrote. As in the soap opera he'd just seen, there was an underlying situation that everybody talked about without getting anywhere, without clarifying or resolving anything, without doing anything to move out of their semi-erotic miasma."

Casey knows how to make us feel something for his characters, but they're pinpricks of feeling scattered sparsely throughout a very long book -- neither the characters' emotional struggles nor the story is epic enough to engage us at such length. He has a gift for capturing and outlining fleeting, deeply confusing emotions with precision and clarity, but by the end of nearly 400 pages, it seems as if he's merely done a good job at pinning down so many butterflies' wings -- as if it were true that he who ends with the most wings, wins.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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