"Therapy," by David Lodge. 321 pages. New York: Viking. $22.95
David Lodge is a funny man with a slight case of monomania. Most of his 10 comic novels are about middle-aged married men whose lives have gradually become unsatisfactory, and whose sex lives are similarly unsatisfactory; these men invariably contrive to have rip-roaringly hot extramarital affairs, and are thereby brought back to life. Lots of other amusing things happen in Lodge's books, but the equation Midlife Crisis + Illicit Fornication = Bliss is never very far from center stage.
In "Therapy," MC + IF = B gets a high-impact workout. Laurence "Tubby" Passmore, the narrator-hero, is a 58-year-old scriptwriter hTC for a British sitcom whose wife decides to leave him because of his depressive temperament. He has never had sex outside marriage, but for several years has been conducting a "platonic affair" with a colleague whom he never attempts to seduce. When his marriage disintegrates, Passmore simultaneously starts trying to re-enact the missed sexual opportunities of his adult life and becomes obsessed with the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard.
Passmore is also obsessed with his first girlfriend, who refused to sleep with him because she was a devout Catholic. In due course, he tracks her down, learns that she is in Spain on a religious pilgrimage, finds her, beds her and lives happily ever after.
Maureen, the girlfriend, is equally lucky. She no longer sleeps with her husband (he lost interest in her when she had a mastectomy), and the affair brings her back to life as well. Though she remains married and Catholic, it is clear at novel's end that she intends to have a continuing sexual relationship with Tubby: "I don't ask her how she squares it with her conscience - I've got more sense."
Up to the arrival of Maureen, "Therapy" is a lot of fun. In "Changing Places" (1975) and "Small World" (1984), Lodge hacked away at the academy with wicked gusto; he has almost && as much fun here picking off psychotherapy ("I'm game for almost any kind of therapy except chemotherapy"), TV, liberal guilt and various other fish in a barrel.
Just as important, Tubby Passmore is a thoroughly convincing character whose angst rings true: "I always think of despair as a downward spiral movement - like an aeroplane that loses a wing and falls through the air like a leaf, twisting and turning as the pilot struggles helplessly with the controls, the engine note rising to a high-pitched scream, the altimeter needle spinning round and round the dial towards zero."
In short, when "Therapy" is good, it is very, very good - worthy, in fact, of Kingsley Amis. But when it is bad, it is maudlin. The denouement, in fact, is "The Bridges of Madison County" rewritten for lapsed Catholics, with a jigger of existentialism stirred in to add bite. (David Lodge is one of those unfortunate folk who think the road to absolution runs through the nearest bedroom.)
I read "Therapy" on the train from Baltimore to New York, and when I realized, somewhere around Princeton, that Tubby was going to get Maureen into bed, I actually shouted "Oh, no!" out loud, causing a carful of men with cellular phones to gape at me.
Few things are as exasperating as a smart book that turns dumb.
* Terry Teachout writes about classical music for Commentary, ballet for the New Dance Review, books for the New York Times Book Review, opera for Opera News and jazz for the Wall Street Journal. He is currently at work on a biography of H. L. Mencken.