The Way Home, by Robert Earle. DayBue Publishing. 367 pages. $24.
Near the close of this impressive debut novel, the headmaster at a Quaker prep school apologizes at Sunday Meeting for not supporting a student in a moral crisis that has unfolded in plain view. Appalled by his own obliviousness, the headmaster concludes that "society neither knew how to help the old nor hold onto the young. We, 'the ones in charge,' were the soft center between two very hard edges of existence."
Unbeknownst to him, the headmaster is speaking for many. Robert Earle's strangely compelling novel is an indictment of the middle-aged, an account of the damage done when adults at the height of life's arc fumble the authority entrusted them.
Earle, a retired diplomat, claims for his highly original story a conventional subject, the modern nuclear family. But this family is doubly nuclear: Dan and Alicia Kelly and son Max live in Los Alamos, the New Mexico atomic laboratory, where Dan's father, Stony, was a pioneer of chaos theory.
When the imposing Stony dies early in the novel, the family splinters in his absence. The attractive Alicia -- beloved teacher, talented pianist and all-around lost soul -- returns to her native New York. There, she takes up with a famous and corpulent conductor and seeks out the startling truth about her German adoptive parents.
Dan (who eschewed Stony's legacy and is a mere computer scientist) stays in Los Alamos, where he can nourish his true love, long-distance running, an obsession which has, over the years, led him into many post-race trysts with women runners.
That leaves Max, a precocious and private 17-year-old who is shipped off to the prep school of his choice. Aggressively contrarian, he picks a Quaker school in a dying Pennsylvania town. There, he falls for a spunky, Bible-quoting classmate and falls into a moral dilemma while volunteering at a sinister nursing home run by a crippled and fatally charming doctor.
The third-person narrator takes his turn with each Kelly but is most concerned with Max. To the novel's benefit, the narrator has limited access to the characters' thoughts, sparing the reader the melodrama that often comes with more interior narratives of self-discovery. From a distance, we watch Max ride out his lonely trials (literally ride, for he's an ace bicyclist), feeling as powerless to help him as his parents do on their occasional visits.
These encounters between Dan and Alicia and their son are hard to watch. At first, the exchanges seem too clever and erudite to be credible conversation between a teen-ager and his parents. But soon, it becomes clear that the family's wit is not a contradiction, but a symptom, of its collapse: One kind of smartness has supplanted another, leaving the family at an all-too realistic pass.
After one failed visit to the school, Dan complains to Alicia, "I had this feeling, when I was driving onto the campus, that I needed to see him more than he needed to see me." Alicia answers, "Get a life -- that's what the kids tell their parents when they act that way." Which is true, of course. And as this novel shows, the kids are sadly sometimes right.
Alec MacGillis covers higher education for The Sun. His poetry appeared most recently in last summer's issue of The Potomac Review. As he is childless, his credentials for criticizing even fictional parents could be called into question.