cover image The Waterline

The Waterline

Joseph Olshan. Doubleday Books, $18.95 (307pp) ISBN 978-0-385-26505-8

A mixture of the trite and the true, alternating glib psychologizing with perceptive insights, Olshan's third novel (after Clara's Heart ) has commercial potential despite several striking flaws. In successive chapters, Susan and Michael Kaplan narrate the events of a summer day when their seven-year-old son Billy, fishing at a lake near their Westchester home, witnessed the drowning of a younger child. Their marriage strained by the resulting tension, the Kaplans eventually divorce--an event that seems motivated mainly by less credible than due to plot manipulation. Looking back on this traumatizing period, Billy, now in his 20s, narrates the third chapter, in the form of a monologue addressed to the dead boy--a patently contrived device. Related episodes concern Susan's emotionally disturbed sister Tina, whose mental instability Billy feels he has inherited. It is in the sections dealing with Tina that the novel's power lies; her phobia and its effect on Billy is much more convincingly rendered than the drowning incident, which is marred by his parents' failure to get psychological help for Billy when the child is clearly disturbed. Again stretching credibility is Billy's compulsive soul-baring to a woman he encounters while swimming. Olshan's prose style is sometimes facile, sometimes pedestrian. At its best it retains the promise of his earlier work. Major ad/promo; author tour. (Oct.)