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State of the Union

Middle America on edge.

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Anne Tyler is striking a major chord. The Amateur Marriage (Knopf), her 16th novel, has earned the author her best reviews in years and a spot on The New York Times bestseller list. The question is why: why this novel about a marriage not made in heaven is hitting home big-time.

Is it the fundamentally mismatched but easily recognizable white, middle-class couple at the heart of this story, Michael and Pauline Anton? He's a conscientious and cautious workaholic, too coiled and tight-lipped for his own good but a likable guy; she's a live-wire stay-at-home mom, spirited and subject to mood swings but a likable gal. Both are doing their somewhat best. They meet by accident at the start of World War II, and it's uphill and a lot more downhill from there: three kids, a move from inner-city Baltimore to the leafy suburbs, divorce after nearly three decades, then a happy remarriage for him and no remarriage but some peace of mind for her.

Anne Tyler

Lindy, the oldest of their kids, runs away from home in the early 1960s, shows up in San Francisco seven years later as a hardened drug addict, leaves Michael and Pauline to care for her abandoned son, then drops out of sight again. George and Karen, the Antons' two younger children, make a better but colorless showing -- he: a businessman specializing in, of all things, mergers; she: a self-styled "hotshot" lawyer working for the poor. What's there for readers of a certain generation (make that two generations) and of a certain class not to identify with? Plenty.

Who are these characters? We hear from Michael of Pauline's history of "shouting and weeping and carrying on," of furniture kicked, doors slammed, and clothes flung from a window. This will be news to readers. We get references to Pauline's outbursts, but we hardly witness a context for them.

Michael goes for 29 years without seeing, much less knowing the whereabouts of his daughter Lindy, then when Lindy shows up out of the blue -- what? Nothing from Tyler on Michael's reaction except to learn that he "behaved as if Lindy had merely been out shopping." Impossible.

Later, Michael asks Lindy if she has fond memories of going to the circus. "Good Lord above, those eternal family excursions," she says, ungrateful as ever, then she calls this nuclear family of five a "wretched, tangled knot ... stunted, like a trapped fox chewing its own leg off." The circus? "Eternal family excursions"? You'll have to take Lindy's word for it. And you'll have to trust that the "claustrophobia" that Lindy says drove her away for nearly 30 years was a teen-ager's understandable response to all that leg-chewing.

I'll hand it to Tyler in the book's best scene, though. Midway through The Amateur Marriage, Pauline says to her husband, "So what if we fight a bit? I just think that proves we have ... a marriage with a lot of energy and passion! I think it's been a fun kind of marriage!"

"It has not been fun," Michael answers calmly before he walks out for good, and the statement hits just the right note, devastating for all its quiet. One reason, then, why readers are responding to Tyler's latest? Must be they're in a "knot" of their own.

But you think the Antons have problems? It's the new millennium in Jim Shepard's novel Project X (Knopf), which means it meltdown time for the Hanratty family. Make that a major meltdown for Edwin Hanratty, an eighth-grader who gets beaten up at school as often as he's beaten down by the clueless teachers in charge. He's got one good friend, Flake, a psychopath-in-training, and he's hero to Herman, a sixth-grader with an unmanageable mean streak. So Flake, with Edwin in tow, has a bright idea: poison the entire student body, but the plan doesn't work. Then Flake, with Edwin in tow, decides to gun down the entire student body. It's that, according to Edwin's frustrated thinking, or continue submitting to daily detention, a locker combination that won't work, and a mom and dad at wit's end.

It's obvious where Shepard came up with the idea for this book. Less obvious: how he dug into the heart and soul of an adolescent outcast, "the kid you think about," even Edwin admits, "when you want to make yourself feel better." The stuff here is too raw and immediate to be entirely Shepard's invention, the torments of a junior-high pecking order more than mere guesswork. Middle America never looked so screwed up. Home schooling never looked so good.

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