The hero of this novel by the prolific Stephen Dixon (best known for his more than 300 short stories) can be described as an intrepid worrier. In fact, both the character and the novel itself are the finest examples of the obsessive- compulsive syndrome you are likely to encounter outside a psychoanalyst’s waiting room. Nominated for the National Book Award, Frog is a manic account of a manic man, in which the author, like a mad scientist, keeps cutting into his narrative, removing its limbs and entrails, and replacing them with new ones. The disjointed results are sometimes startling, funny, or moving, but there are long, unbroken stretches of this relentless, plotless dissection of a man and his family that can be read only in the comfort of a padded cell.
Dixon’s tetchy wretch is Howard Tetch, a teacher and blocked writer. In the chapter headings, he’s called Frog (”Frog’s Mom,” ”Frog Reads the News,” etc.). In the narrative, Frog is the name of his daughter’s turtle. Frog, or Tetch, doesn’t resemble a turtle or frog, however — a harried laboratory rodent in a maze is more like it. He is constantly imagining alternative paths, especially dire ones. When his wife goes off to a movie, leaving him to care for one of their two daughters, he comes up with half a dozen scenarios of his spouse’s accidental death and is already about a year into his imaginary life as a widower by the time she returns.
Dixon does extract a certain amount of comedy from his character’s neurotic exertions. When Tetch is stopped for speeding on the way to pick up his daughter at school, he makes himself late by interrupting the cop with his apprehensions about being late. The obsessive comedy never rises to the stalemated perfection of Kafka or Beckett, but it has its moments. The best thing in the book, however, is the horrific, baffling disappearance of Tetch’s 4-year-old daughter at the beach. Here the obsessiveness rises to a high pitch of panic that carries the reader along on a surge of sympathetic anxiety. (The daughter appears in subsequent chapters without explanation.)
Dixon’s Jewish antihero is delivered as thoroughly and shamelessly as Leopold Bloom, most often in the patented stream-of-consciousness style: ”Sits down, puts on his glasses, picks up the paper, unfolds it. Forgot the coffee. God, what a mind. Forget it. No, wants it.” If you think Bloom in the outhouse is a high point of modern literature, you will be pleased to know that an entire chapter of this book is devoted to Tetch’s constipation. Frog is a better novel than Norman Rush’s clunky, National Book Award-winning Mating, but why these books, and not Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War or Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, were nominated for a National Book Award is a puzzle more insoluble than any narrative trick in Frog. C+