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Take a CAT Scan of Life

LARRY'S PARTY Carol Shields Viking 339 pp. $23.95


If Carol Shields, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Stone Diaries, ever tires of writing fiction, she should consider taking up biography. Her newest novel, Larry's Party, paints a subtle portrait of Larry Weller by taking, as the book jacket states, "a CAT scan of his life." If Shields can make a fictional character seem so alive, she could do wonders with an actual human being.

The fifteen chapters of the book, each of which could stand alone as an elegant short story, pile on thick layers of detail to create an intensely believable and likable character. Information given obliquely in one chapter may be stated directly, as background, four chapters later. But this repetition is never boring; the gradual accretion of detail makes the various twists and turns of Larry's life seem eminently plausible.

Larry Weller first appears as a 26-year-old walking along a Winnipeg street, "walking straight toward the next thing that was going to happen to him." He lives at home with his parents; he has fallen into a steady job as a florist; he has acquired a serious girlfriend. Something significant happens to Larry, quite quickly; his girlfriend, Dorrie, becomes pregnant. Larry proposes, and things start happening to him with increasing frequency.

Larry's marriage to Dorrie is doomed far before the ceremony; when Larry laments his "deficient love for Dorrie" on their honeymoon their relationship has already entered a long, slow period of decline. So Larry discovers his true love during the bus tour of England that was a wedding gift from his parents. One afternoon the tour stops at Hampton Court, a large maze outside of London, and Larry the florist is entranced. He wanders around, lost, but he has found his passion in life. Shortly after he and Dorrie return home, he plants his own maze in his backyard.

The Wellers' marriage steadily deteriorates, and one day Dorrie hires a bulldozer to destroy Larry's backyard maze. Larry leaves Dorrie and his son Ryan and "his place on the planet." Only his job and his commission to create a maze for a friend of a friend save him from utter despair. Larry's mazes gain some local notoriety, and, when offered an opportunity to work on a maze in Chicago with a prominent landscaper, Larry quits his job and moves to the States.

The new maze is a success, and Larry finds enough eccentrically rich prospective maze builders to sustain his own maze design business. He meets with success in his personal life as well. His new wife, Beth, is a beautiful, if self-centered, academic interested in women's studies and religion. Unfortunately, Larry's prolonged midlife malaise and Beth's scramble to the top of the ivory tower conspire to end this marriage too.

Larry, after his second divorce, moves from Chicago to Toronto, where he continues running his maze firm, nearly succumbs to encephalitis, and meets a new love interest, Charlotte, who is lovely but dull. Larry is finally comfortable with himself and his life, and he and Charlotte throw a dinner party when both of his ex-wives venture to Toronto on the same weekend.

Shields' lapidary, natural prose and her gift for storytelling make the first fourteen chapters a delight to read (unfortunately the last, longest chapter, "Larry's Party," is an anticlimax). Writing dialogue is obviously easy for Shields. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that you don't know her characters personally--the people you know speak the way she writes.

Shields seems to know this and apparently decided to capitalize on this strength by including over nine pages of unbroken dialogue when describing the party. Although this dialogue is indeed remarkably lifelike, it is also less than gripping. "Was that the doorbell, Larry? Why don't you let me get it this time?" is not a fascinating way to advance the plot, especially when it leads to an ending that, although satisfying, seems rather pat.

The book jacket would suggest that by chronicling Larry Weller's life from 1977 to 1997, Shields has captured the essence of Man during each of these decades as well. Apart from one reference to hair length in the 70s, several references to unemployment in the 80s and 90s, and an incongruous, forced discussion of men in the 90s at the dinner party, time scarcely seems to pass at all. Larry and his family age and change, but their essence remains the same. Larry the successful maze designer is not much different from Larry the florist. Shields has created remarkably balanced, three-dimensional and convincing characters.

Except for the disappointing last chapter, Larry's Party is an exceptionally good read. The self-contained nature of the individual chapters make it student-friendly--it's easy to pick back up after you've put it down for a while. Larry Weller is an interesting thinker, for an ordinary guy, and his internal thoughts and comments are thoughts and comments are thought-provoking and fascinating. His worries and insecurities seem familiar. Larry's a sort of Everyman, only better.

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