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From the Shelf Climbing Willie's Ladder

By Frank Rich

; 312 pages; Donald McKay; $5.95

EVERY DAY we have these decisions to make. About avocados and hats and polities and screwing and everything else. The choices always are the same, yet we keep on making the same old decisions, somehow convincing ourselves that one day some incredibly right decision will take us a step closer to salvation, a rung higher on that ladder to heaven. And how do we keep at it? What do we call that force that pulls us on? Chutzpah.

So concludes Willie O'Toole, the Irish-Jewish poet narrator of Alan Lebowitz's novel. Climbing Willie's Ladder. Chutzpah, that untranslatable Yiddish expression referring to some brand of unique insolent bravery, is what propels us through that joke, life. And in Willie's case, it takes an awful lot of chutzpah.

Forty years old, four times married, author of two slim volumes of poetry, creative writing teacher at a provincial college-Willie O'Toole has endured a lot. But until you read through Lebowitz's description of it all, you can't possibly appreciate how much. Lebowitz has Willie lead us through his odyssey of hapless existence, a trip that takes us through the nitty-gritty of all four marriages (in the past), at least three affairs (in the present), and a large part of the American terrain (past and present). It could be pretty grim going, but thanks to Willie's indomitable chutzpah, the intrinsic grimness of his tale never overshadows his hope that something better will come along.

Willie's hope makes much of the American phenomena (swimming pool culture, perversions of academia, postmarital sex life) dissected in the novel seem not so much horrifying as pathetically funny. In taking this approach to life in American society. Lebowitz has come up with something different and genuinely beautiful as sick sixties fiction goes.

Lebowitz has to be more specific. cut out a territory for himself somewhere between that of the dark humorist and the satirist. Willie's America is neither absurd nor gross. It is instead a wilderness, populated by fleshy people who act out vacuous models of existence that they are helpless to change.

Willie's heart goes out to these people. He laughs with them, not at them. When he visits old chum Orville Sandweiss, now locked into a wife-swapping element of Cleveland society. Willie does not mock bourgeois Orville. He merely describes and wonders how Orville goes on making love to his wife ("I might just as well be sticking it in soapy water," says Orville), Willie finds Orville outlandish and so do we-but it is an outlandishness on the side of the humane rather than the grotesque.

Not that there is anything wrong with the grotesque. Joseph Heller, Terry Souhern, and Philip Roth are great people to have around, but the kindness that runs through Willie's Ladder and a few other recent novels (such as John Cheever's Bullet Park ) make a nice alternative to a steady acidic diet.

CLIMBING WILLIE'S LADDER. though, is a first novel and has its flaws. In the most introverted parts of the narrative (particularly at the beginning). Lebowitz edges towards the genre of the paranoid-Jewish-confessional novel, and he does not seem entirely comfortable with it. Willie's abject rantings and ravings about the dirt he exchanged with his ex-wives and lovers are laid on a bit too thick. It is only when Lebowitz brings Willie out of himself and into the world of a widow-friend of his late mother's and her tacky L.A. apartment or into the home of Professor Herman Klotz and his piece-of-ass wife that the novel hits its stride.

Another problem that bothered me a bit was the stylization of the dialogue: after a while, too many of the characters begin to sound exactly like Willie. The most glaring example is when Willie finds rapport with an ex-wife's nine-year-old daughter-and the basis of this rapport is as much the identical speech patterns Willie and the girl use as anything else.

But these quarrels with Climbing Willie's Ladder are fairly minor and best ignored. Alan Lebowitz has had the chutzpah to write a nice book about a not-so-nice world. And these days that takes not only chutzpah but some extraordinary compassion as well.

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