Paul Russell's delicately layered, richly textured novels have won him widespread acclaim as one of the finest contemporary American novelists. Sea of Tranquillity, possibly his most ambitious and rewarding novel, traces a disintegrating nuclear family across two tumultuous decades of American life - from the early '60s to the '80s - and is told in a quartet of voices: astronaut Allen Cloud, his wife, their gay son, Jonathan, and his friend/lover. Ranging in time and emotion from the optimism of the first moon shot to the dark landscape of the age of AIDS, Sea of Tranquillity is an extraordinary and compelling novel.
Russell's third novel (after Boys of Life), a transplanetary sexual fantasia that chronicles the life of an astronaut's family in the age of AIDS, is so humongous in its attempted scope that it succeeds at a lot of things, among them confounding the reader. Told by four different characters in alternating sections, the book charts the lives of numerous people in such varied locations as Florida, Turkey, Africa, Washington, D.C., and the moon. There are characters who succeed entirely, like Allen Cloud, repressed astronaut, who goes into mental orbit when he discovers that his son, Jonathan, is dying of AIDS, and whose story is well realized through tight, realist writing. Yet the novel suffers from a plethora of imagery and a glut of metaphor: a grove of sycamores that die by the saw; the moon; various seas of tranquillity. The book's center, depicting Jonathan's sexual exploits and illness, is clouded by long-winded surrealist riffs and disjointed meditations on outer space. The fascinated speculation particular to Russell's writing works best when it's hitched to real-life objects-like Cloud's rocket-and not left free-floating in space. We are left dazed and tingly at the end, as if we had just witnessed an abortive moon mission. (Sept.)