An Ocean in Iowa

Charles Taylor reviews 'An Ocean in Iowa' by Peter Hedges.

By Charles Taylor
Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Joan, the mother in Peter Hedges' second novel, "An Ocean in Iowa," is onstage for only part of the book but she hovers over every page. She's that new icon: the woman who landed in suburbia by mistake. She's an artist, a dedicated smoker and the shelter, the best friend, the nonconformist inspiration in the life of her 7-year-old son, Scotty, the novel's hero. She's also an alcoholic, but it's a measure of what's good about this novel that Hedges doesn't present her drinking as some scarring trauma, some trigger for abuse. Scotty simply accepts it, as most kids accept what happens around them, so that we experience it as he does, as not that big a deal.

That's probably the most unconventional thing about "An Ocean in Iowa" (the title comes from Scotty's last name, Ocean), which follows Scotty through his seventh year -- 1969 -- after Joan moves out, enrolls in college and takes an apartment 90 miles away from Scotty and his two older sisters. "An Ocean in Iowa" doesn't have the unsettling quality that went bone-deep in Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha." Hedges (the author of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") always makes it clear who's on the side of the unconventional angels and who's on the side of the conformists -- like Scotty's father, "the Judge," who we can see is doing his best to be both parents to his children, but who remains too distant to ever engage our sympathies. After Scotty and Joan, Hedges' most successful characterization is Scotty's elementary-school teacher. She's instantly recognizable, the sort of woman who, after years of teaching, still greets each new class with enthusiasm, is firm and encouraging in equal measure and can still make her students think that learning is the thing that will usher them into the ranks of the big kids.

Finally, though, none of the novel's limitations do much to diminish its emotional satisfactions. Hedges lets us understand Scotty (who's something of an enigma to others) without ever resorting to explaining him. He writes straightforward, uncluttered prose that's sensitive without being fussy. He doesn't make childhood falsely poetic or falsely tragic. I don't think you need to have had a childhood like Scotty's (I didn't) to feel that his fears and fantasies and suppositions remind you of what it was like to be 7. Recapturing part of your emotional past isn't a bad gift for a modest novel to give its readers.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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