By Robley Wilson (Thomas Dunne Books, 274 pages)
From a reader's standpoint, the omen that opens "Splendid Omens" is anything but splendid. In fact, it's so absurdly sad that it borders on asinine. Try this: Longtime friend Alec shows up for his pal Webb's fourth wedding after the two haven't seen each other for some time. It turns out that Webb -- a cranky, earthy artist practically oozing organic sensuality -- is marrying Prudence, a girl less than half his age, who just happens to be pregnant with their second child. Then Webb drops dead from a heart attack, right in the middle of a wedding-day toast. Yeah, it's that kind of opening. (Of note: The novel was expanded from a short story that actually ended on that scene.)
But Orlando resident Robley Wilson's gift in handling such an introductory salvo is to let the rest of the story -- Alec and Webb's unlikely friendship and intertwined history, Alec's disturbingly self-aware outlook, the tentative romance that threatens to develop between Alec and Pru -- unravel so gracefully that the unlikeliness of the first few pages soon dissipates. What remains is a clutch of well-drawn but rather ordinary characters whose unspectacular lives are punctuated with the flaws and foibles and freakishness that damn us all.
It's no accident that the praise of T.C. Boyle is quoted imposingly on the cover. Wilson and Boyle both share an uncanny gift for telling rich and complex stories in a deceptively simple manner. Yet, where Boyle tends to go for a sly humor, Wilson's approach is much more repressed, focusing on Alec's middlebrow melancholy. Flashes of humor do come through, but as this character-driven story is told from Alec's point of view, even those flashes are somewhat muted. Nonetheless, Wilson's background as a poet serves him well, and once we're past the explosive beginning, his well-metered narrative makes the book an undeniable pleasure.
(Robley Wilson reads from Splendid Omens, 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28; Barnes & Noble, 2418 E. Colonial Drive; 407-894-6024)
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