Book reviewers have their own peculiar nightmares, usually involving a fear of looking foolish. We are, after all, in the business of passing judgment, so it won't do if we turn out not to know what we're talking about. And people don't let you forget. There is more than one anthology of reviews that completely missed the point, and English professors with a mean streak are always trotting out Clifton Fadiman's review of "Absalom, Absalom," in which he fails utterly to see what Faulkner was trying to do. Me, I don't just feel sorry for Fadiman; I feel a bond with him when I think of the poor man hurrying to read a book that you cannot read in a hurry—and book reviewers must almost always read too quickly. It's one of the liabilities of the job. How many times have I done this? How many poor authors have I sold short? My own private nightmare is to have been one of the first people to review James Joyce's "Ulysses," and to not have realized that it is based Homer's Odyssey.
I thought of this often, with many a shudder, while reading Bernard Schlink's "Homecoming," his first novel since "The Reader" (Oprah pick, best seller, book-club favorite). Schlink doesn't fool around. He speaks of Homer and Odysseus throughout his book, which concerns the obsession of a son for his father in much the same way that Telemachus yearns for Odysseus. The trick for the reader is to divine just how Schlink uses Homer's story. The narrator, Peter Debauer, is a son, born in Germany at the end of World War II, searching for the father who abandoned him and his mother before the boy was past infancy. The father, it turns out, is a shape shifter like Odysseus. But the son is on an odyssey of his own, searching for his identity all over Europe and then America. He, too, has more than one name: Graf, Bindinger. So who is Odysseus and who is Telemachus? Or is it a mistake to seek exact corollaries?
Schlink draws us in slowly, so slowly that it takes a third or more of the book to discover that we are reading a book that bounces off The Odyssey in strange, often oblique, ways. At the outset, the boy Peter is obsessed with a novel published by his grandparents in Switzerland. The story in question involves a German soldier trying to make his way home in World War II, and Peter has most of the book but not the last few pages. He begins his search trying merely to find a complete copy so that he can read the end. Gradually, he comes to suspect and then to confirm his suspicion that the book was written by his own father. It's impossible to talk of this novel without giving away crucial plot points and surprises. Part of the pleasure in reading "Homecoming" is watching Peter gradually understand his own situation to gradually realize that while the Odyssey is "the prototype of all homecoming stories," it is also a text onto which we project our own personal longings. This he learns from a philosophy professor teaching at Columbia in New York City. The teacher is a deconstructionist who argues that it is we, the readers, not Homer, who call the epic a story of homecoming. Perhaps Homer meant something else, or perhaps it does not matter what Homer meant.
Schlink is a quietly beguiling writer who knows how to slow things down so that we pay attention to the world he's building inside his book, a world he patiently furnishes with the slow addition of small things: the sound of shoes on a gravel walk, the sight of man making dinner. And Schlink is something a shape shifter himself: he seems to be telling one story when in reality he is up to something else. He subtly pulls the rug out from beneath our expectations time and again. Peter loses his great love and then regains her, loses his father and then finds him, only to discover that he's not sure he should have been so persistent. Played against the reunification of Germany, when identities change, fall away and recombine at the national and the personal level, Peter Debauer's narrative takes many unexpected turns, but every turn leads him closer to understanding not just who his father is but who he is. He ends, to paraphrase Eliot, more or less where he began, and he knows it fully for the first time. It is a mesmerizing tale, full of not one journey but several, and Schlink holds us in suspense as to Peter's fate right to the last line of the novel. At least, I think that's what happens. I read it in a hurry.