All's bared in love and war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2002, 12:00am

Meet John Trow

by Thomas Dyja

Viking $250

OUR MAN IS coasting uneasily into his 40s. He lives in Connecticut, is stalled on his climb up the corporate ladder, is husband to a tightly wound shrew and father to a sullen, surly child. Welcome to the anomie and quiet desperation of a mid-life crisis.

Is this American Beauty? No, but Thomas Dyja's darkly comic and unsettling debut novel, Meet John Trow, is proof that the literary vein of suburban angst is far from being bled dry. Although partly a satire of American business (the man in the grey flannel suit now telecommutes and designs Web sites touting pre-sliced lunch meats), Dyja's real agenda is exploring the allure of trying on another persona - and what happens when that persona begins to take control.

Steven Armour and his family, while visiting a national park near their home, stumble across a group of Civil War re-enactors, a curious and inexplicably growing hobby in the United States, in which men dress as Yankee and Rebel soldiers and stage mock battles. So obsessed are participants about authenticity that they lose weight, grow beards and fuss over details such as buttons and period underwear. They take the names of real Civil War soldiers, research their 'characters', answer only to their adopted name and speak in the syntax of the period.

Armour, while aware of 'the basic dorkiness of the whole endeavour', is nonetheless drawn to the notion of slipping into another man's skin: 'He was envious of these men and women who had wiped out the other world - the present, their future - completely out of existence, even if only for a while.'

Writing with humour born of bemusement and chagrin, Dyja says Armour knows that 'even to pretend to have a purpose now would be wonderful'. And it doesn't hurt that he seems a natural for it; he's better at drill than some of the veterans, as if his body has done this before.

From there, trouble begins. His character, Trow - forceful, assertive, principled - starts asserting himself through Armour, whose interest in his alter-ego goes beyond obsession when he starts receiving apparently authentic letters detailing a tortured affair between Trow and his regiment captain's wife, Polly - a character played by the wife of Armour's son's eighth-grade teacher. Soon enough, life imitates the history laid out in the epistolary exchange, and Armour/Trow is contemplating how easy it would be to slip a live round into his rifle during a re-enactment to eliminate the competition for 'Polly'.

While contemplating murder, Armour can't help but notice that allowing Trow to come to the fore has helped get his career back on track and win back the respect of his wife and kids. It turns out being a ghost host isn't all bad.

As Armour is seduced by re-enacting, so the reader is sucked into a tale with supernatural trappings. Meet John Trow, right down to its unforgivably punnish title, is a winningly inventive visit to admittedly well-trod literary territory. Readers may have been here before, with characters such as John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and others, but the mid-life crisis novel seems to remain fresh, especially in Dyja's hands. It is like Pat Benatar used to sing: 'Love is a battlefield.'