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The Boston Phoenix As Time Goes By

The tangled history of three couples infuses an intense, surprising novel

By David Valdes Greenwood

NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

The Story of a Million Years by David Huddle (Houghton Mifflin), 224 pages, $23.

"Where is there any evidence of human goodness?" asks one of the men in David Huddle's touching debut novel, The Story of a Million Years. A Huddle character might be able to answer, but would have to think about it first. The best example of clear goodness in this novel is the heroic gentleness with which one character handles evidence of his wife's infidelity with a friend -- in the face of pain, he finds a way to make his wife a teammate again long enough for the worst moment to pass. Therein lies the strength of this novel: the characters continually surprise us by rising above their flaws and the flaws of those they love.

The Story of a Million Years is actually 10 stories told by eight narrators. The stories are gem-like on their own, but they also work together as a cohesive whole -- an approach that capitalizes on Huddle's experience as a short-fiction writer. The narrators are all linked by Marcy, first a beautiful preteen and then a beautiful adult (in Huddle's universe, women neither gain weight nor age badly). In the first chapter, it seems that the novel will be a Lolita-esque study of the effect of 15-year-old Marcy's affair with a man twice her age. But before we can focus too deeply on that territory, time moves forward.

In the next chapter, Marcy's high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband, Allan, recasts her past entirely, investing her with an innocence that readers know to be false, but he does so with such arrogant confidence that we are happy for him that he feels this way. Then his best friend Jimmy reinvents our image of Allan -- and Uta, Jimmy's wife, recasts our impression of Jimmy. And so it goes, until all four friends have offered different perspectives on their tangled lives.

Only after we have seen how these four negotiate their adult relationships do we get to hear more from Robert, the man who seduced the teenage Marcy, and his long-suffering wife, Suzanne. When we join them years later, the parallels are closer to How I Learned To Drive than to Nabokov: Robert is a man who can't see the harm he does, and Suzanne finds a way to make peace with this. What we see in retrospect is that Robert changed how Marcy saw herself, for good and ill, creating a secret history that influences all the couples -- even the parties that have no knowledge of the affair.

Huddle's portrayal of these characters reveals the secrets great and small that linger between couples, the way confidences are given as gifts and betrayal is seldom simple. The characters are distinct and sympathetic (even selfish Robert and Allan the jerk), which goes a long way toward making us accept the somewhat implausible fact that every person confronted with evidence of adultery manages -- at least in his or her own mind -- to make up an understanding excuse for the person who has cheated. No one even evinces much surprise at the sordid happenings. Instead, all three couples (who briefly become cross-couples) make what Robert describes as a "contract" to go on together, to persevere despite knowing too well the limits of their loves.

Though the characters take being wronged with a certain equanimity, the novel is anything but placid. Huddle knows how to invest a scene with remarkable tension, the kind of suspense that highlights his perceptiveness about human psychology. The novel is consistently written in the first person, which means that each conflict is delivered to us filtered through the narrator's sense impressions and emotions. Chapter by chapter, tense moments pile up: a breathless near-miss between Marcy and Suzanne in a restaurant; a homophobic incident at summer camp that transforms a wallflower into a tough girl; a sex scene between old friends who can barely stand each other.

Huddle knows how to sharpen a scene to its finest point so that a story that has read smoothly suddenly stabs the reader. Indeed, his best writing virtually draws blood. Consider Robert, at 70, calmly contemplating the brittle union between himself, a "man who chose not to murder his wife," and a woman "who has become so attentive to her domestic duties and who even now is preparing a dinner for me that may or may not contain a dose of poison."

It is a surprise, then, that the book closes gently, in a nostalgic "when I am old, I shall wear lavender" vein. Instead of returning to any of the characters involved in the action, Huddle creates a daughter to take up the narrative, and we are left with the sense of time moving on. The colorful lives that have been assembled are now the subject of family stories -- which may be the point. Behind the repeated mythology of any family lies the truth: complex and shocking, sad and sweet, goodness beyond measure and betrayal untold.

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