Why is it that certain qualities too horrifying to dwell on in one's own life -- profound self-loathing, say, and emotional withdrawal, and an all-encompassing sense of inertia -- when these same qualities animate the narrator of a breezy, conversational novel, they become impossible to resist? Perhaps that's a mystery only Bridget Jones can unlock. It's certainly hard to resist the voice of Paul Brickner, the narrator of "Beautiful Somewhere Else." Paul's story may be filled with more gravitas and magic than Bridget Jones could fit in her day planner, but the immediacy of his voice and the juiciness of his romantic entanglements put this first novel by Stephen Policoff in that rare category -- an intelligent person's beach reading.
This is especially apt since the novel takes place on Cape Cod, where Paul has gamely agreed to holiday with his girlfriend Nadia. (I say gamely because Paul is the sort of curmudgeon who's "mystified by people who bring dogs to the beach." He grumbles: "I understand the desire for uncritical adoration, but what's the good when you know that the damn dog would uncritically adore Herman Goering too?") It is August 1991, and if you consult weather records you'll see that's the month Hurricane Bob whirled his way up the East Coast and did serious damage to the Cape. So when Paul warns us on the second page that he has a tendency to "unearth the panic attack lurking within the vacation," he's at least not entirely to blame this time.
Things get complicated quickly in this story, but it's worth wading through the first few pages clogged with proper names. Paul, who is 38, twice divorced and stalled in the non-career of trade magazines, can't stop obsessing over his second wife, Annie, and "what happened" between them (you won't learn that till the end of the book, so I won't spoil it for you). Nadia is a slender and silky 22-year-old photographer with a mother so withdrawn she's almost invisible and a father so eccentric (he seems related to the Royal Tenenbaums) that he's never there. On this vacation the couple are visited by Fred, Nadia's stalker ex who can't let go and who, for some reason, is never forced to go; Jennifer, Nadia's best friend who seems suspiciously aware of the size of Fred's penis; and Tommy, Paul's college buddy turned musician turned aimless stoner.
This summertime soap opera, however, is framed by a slightly more "literary" theme: that of Sung Soo, a famous escape artist of Houdini's era (or so we're told). Paul is almost as obsessed with Sung Soo as he is with Annie, largely because he's trying to write a forever-stalled book about the illusionist. And having brought his notes with him to the Cape, he keeps referring to Soo's life and writings. Paul even quotes from a biography, written by Soo's assistant and lover Lois Neff-Choppet, hilariously titled "My Secret Soo." The theme here is pretty obvious -- to escape, to vanish, perchance to dream -- and it's a theme that meshes naturally with Paul's desire to disappear from his own life.
But he's not the one who ends up disappearing (something of a spoiler is coming up here). In the middle of their vacation, after afternoons by the water and seafood dinners and a weird episode in which Jennifer gives Tommy a blow job in full view of Paul, Tommy runs off. The gang strikes out to find him just as the hurricane whips up, and just as some pills Tommy offered Paul begin to take effect. The second half of the novel occurs with Paul largely in a drug-addled, or Soo-induced, haze. Seeing visions of Annie and E.T.-like "Others," Paul follows Fred to an old hotel wryly named the Donne Inn, where, depending on your beliefs, supernatural or hallucinogen-inspired events occur, which lead to catharsis. This part of the story loses momentum, and might have been tighter had Policoff trimmed the supernatural sequences -- but by this time you feel attached to Paul's shambling personality and you want to know how things end.
This must be the clearest sign of Policoff's talent. There are sentences here that, to their credit, feel like they belong in a deeper story. Remembering how he and Nadia met, Paul recalls a line Soo once wrote to Houdini: "Even in a life such as mine, filled with the passion to elude, there must be little episodes of convergence." And Paul's pessimism is enriched with a sense of both humor and self-knowledge. When Tommy goes missing, Paul says something that neatly encapsulates the limitations of all neurotics: "I can't picture Tommy dead, but then, I rarely can picture the worst, only the moderately dreadful." If you happen to be a neurotic who doesn't mind seaside vacations, then you'll find ideal levels of introspection and diversion in this novel -- it's the kind of story you sip with ice while squinting at the loud volleyball players at the other end of the beach.