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Sophomore Shlump?

After her unlikely but enchanting love story, The Giant's House, Elizabeth McCracken's new novel -- though a pleasure to read -- is missing a big idea.

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The only bad thing about Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, which came out in 1996, was that it made you a little anxious about how she could possibly top it. Literally. The author's first novel was about a small-town librarian who falls hopelessly in love with a shy teenage giant. And figuratively too. In a literary landscape crowded with "darkly funny" tales of black-clad twentysomething hipsters and with intergenerational schmaltzfests masquerading as "fierce lyricism," McCracken's debut displayed a unity of potent elements: beauty of expression; a rather shy, almost offhand way with painful emotional insights; a truly wacky sense of humor; and a kind of disarming, old-fashioned charm. All that and a giant in love.

What could be next?

The answer is a novel that couldn't be more different if it tried. McCracken began with a tightly focused story of a very tall boy; she's moved on to a sprawling epic about a short guy. Niagara Falls All Over Again retails the rise and fall of an Abbott-and-Costello-ish comedy team narrated by the duo's straight man, a Jewish Iowan named Mose Sharp. In 300 pages of short episodes, the aged Mose looks back on his eventful career and life: his tragedy-pocked childhood; his early days in vaudeville; his "big break," which comes when he meets Rocky Carter, the fat, flamboyant funnyman who becomes Mose's partner, first onstage, then in movies, radio, and TV; his successful marriage to a beautiful dancer; and then the disintegration of Carter and Sharp, both professionally and personally, after Mose decides to devote himself to his family in the wake of a personal tragedy.

There's a biopic feel to all of this -- as you read it, you can't help thinking of For the Boys, that endless Bette Midler-James Caan vehicle about a pair of performers that felt about as long as the half-century it chronicled. Still, despite the paint-by-numbers plotting, McCracken's new novel offers many of the pleasures familiar from her earlier work. There are those oddball insights ("Love is an animal that can be taught to sleep in the house"). There are, as you'd expect in a book about comics, lots of laughs. And there's terrific writing too -- small moments that make your eyes open a little wider with pleasure. At a family dinner party, Mose's conventional brother-in-law, who dreams of being in movies and brags to Mose that he'd been a good dancer when he was young, "gave his considerable belly a pat, as though it were a trunk that held all of his former success."

Whatever the pleasures it offers, the new novel seems assembled rather than inspired -- a lot happens in it, but it's never clear just what Mose's life is about. You knew from the delicious start what The Giant's House was about, and you loved how it used its male hero's gigantism as a kind of symbol for the freakishness of love itself. Niagara Falls All Over Again, on the other hand, goes on and on. It's a fun ride, but then it's over and that's it.

The problem is Mose himself. McCracken's a writer who's temperamentally attracted to weirdness; her first book, the 1993 story collection Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, was also peopled with freaks and misfits. So why is she writing about a straight man? Peggy, the librarian narrator of The Giant's House, may have looked relatively normal, but inside she was every bit the freak that her outsize love interest was; that's what gave the novel its texture and poignancy. In Niagara Falls All Over Again, you keep wishing that Mose were a bit more off-center -- or, better, that the appetite-driven, spendthrift Rocky had been the narrator instead of his partner, a nice family guy who "never really cared for theater people," carefully saves his pennies, and loves his wife and kids.

That's not a character you're necessarily very interested in. Nor, more to the point, does McCracken seem to be -- though she tries mightily to liven up the proceedings with a wearying sequence of accidental deaths, adulterous dalliances, and long-overdue reunions. What's wrong with this overeventful but oddly inconsequential book (though let's be clear -- there's plenty that's right) is what's typically wrong with sophomore novels: Overstuffed, overambitious, it tries too hard for too much. But that overabundance in itself suggests that there's much more to come. Niagara Falls All Over Again may not be McCracken's "big break" -- the breakthrough book that will win her more than a cult following -- but then, as Mose reminds us, every great show needs a lot of rehearsal. McCracken's act is one that every lover of serious fiction should follow.

Niagara Falls All Over Again
By Elizabeth McCracken.
Dial Press; 308 pages; $23.95.


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