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  Welcome, animalheart

January 5, 2003, Sunday


The Slippery Slope

By Gary Krist

By Simon Mawer.
370 pp. Boston:
Little, Brown & Company. $24.95.

MEN and mountains have always had a volatile relationship.

For those of us belonging to the testosterone-burdened sex, mountains have served as proving grounds, playgrounds, burial grounds and grounds for everything from celebration to divorce. Even the least experienced climber knows that there's nothing like a scramble up a sheer rock cliff to bring a man (or a woman, true, but more often it's a man) face to face with whatever demons he may be trying to ignore at lower altitudes. Little wonder, then, that male writers from James Salter to Jon Krakauer have been drawn to mountain climbing as a subject. It's not that things are all that different at ten or twenty thousand feet above sea level; it's just that life seems a little less cluttered up there, a little more elemental -- and a far sight more dramatic.

''Dramatic'' is certainly the adjective of choice for ''The Fall,'' Simon Mawer's fine new novel about mountaineering. The book takes as its starting point the horrible accident of its title, with James Matthewson, a renowned but now middle-aged mountain climber, tumbling from the face of a Welsh cliff that he should not have been attempting by himself. He dies almost instantly, leaving behind a widow, an estranged best friend and a number of mysteries, among them why he would be climbing such a difficult route without ropes or a helmet. Could the veteran climber have been trying to commit suicide? It's a question for which the bulk of the novel is designed to provide an answer.

The story behind the fall, however, is not simple. In fact, it extends back through over half a century of personal history, involving two generations of two different families of climbers. Adding in their spouses and lovers, this makes for a potentially unwieldy cast of characters, but Mawer, an English writer best known in this country for his novel ''Mendel's Dwarf,'' handles the complexity with impressive ease. He shuttles smoothly between decades and generations, piecing together a rich composite portrait of a group of people ruled by (and often misled by) their passions -- both for the mountains and for one other.

The principal strand of the narrative traces the long and troubled friendship of James Matthewson and the narrator, Robert Dewar. Thrown into each other's company as children, they eventually grow up to be climbing partners, facing together the rigors of peaks from the Scottish Highlands to the Swiss Alps. But these two men share much more than the occasional mountaintop chocolate bar. They also share Ruth, a free-spirited Welsh painter who sleeps with both of them (and not necessarily at different times) but winds up marrying James and working for Robert. In a different sense, they share Caroline, James's even more free-spirited mother, who (pace Mrs. Robinson) seduces a 16-year-old Robert on a weekend visit to London. Some of their sharing has even been prenatal, given that James's father (Guy, a famous mountaineer in his own right) and Robert's mother (Diana) were themselves lovers before each married someone else.

In summary, this tangle of erotic connections may sound a bit much, and admittedly there are some distressingly overripe references in the novel's early pages to the ''ghosts'' and ''echoes'' from the past that haunt the members of this densely interrelated set. But Mawer is too astute a novelist to succumb to melodrama for long. He writes with patience and great physical precision, investing every scene with a cinematic abundance of sights and sounds, whether he's describing a traumatic kitchen-table abortion or the aural drama of the London Blitz during World War II: ''The concussion of high explosive and the crack of the antiaircraft batteries, the rattle of incendiaries falling on roofs and sidewalks, the throbbing of the pumps and the rhythmic droning of the bombers, high up and invisible above the underlit, ocher clouds.'' And that precision extends to his depiction of psychological states as well. The scenes in which 19-year-old Diana falls for the much older (yet somehow more innocent) Guy Matthewson are utterly convincing, one of the most credible accounts I've ever read of two people falling in love.

But for a novel like this to succeed, the mountaineering scenes must exhilarate, and this is never an easy task. Climbing and sex (two activities that are compared perhaps once too often in the novel) present similar challenges to a writer, descriptions of each being vulnerable to excesses of procedural detail on the one hand and unbridled effusiveness on the other. Mawer avoids both traps; he gives us scenes that convey the giddy experience of climbing without burying us in either technical jargon or purple rhetoric: ''We chopped sideways like crabs, finding the best line round rock outcrops, occasionally descending, occasionally slipping, sometimes glancing down and seeing the great sweep of ice below us, and below that the abstract, inaccessible meadows -- Elysian fields, warm in the distant sunlight.''

If I have a complaint with ''The Fall,'' it's about the way in which Mawer tries to turn up the emotional volume near the end. He seems to be casting a hopeful eye toward Hollywood this time out (coming after the eccentric ''Mendel's Dwarf,'' the more traditional plot of ''The Fall'' represents a surprising lunge toward the commercial mainstream), and the principal flaw of the novel is one that plagues the average high-budget blockbuster. Too much emphasis is placed on achieving maximum emotional payoff for each character, resulting in the kind of overcooked Hollywood ending in which, for instance, the best friend turns out to be the murderer, the trusted mentor is unmasked as the hero's betrayer -- or his father or his archenemy, and so on and so on. Thus two late revelations that seem intended to be momentous are actually quite foreseeable long before the last page. Granted, this kind of contrivance is not the worst of crimes, but the resort to formula is disappointing in a work of such sophistication.

''There is something old-fashioned about climbing,'' Mawer writes near the end of the novel. ''It lets in emotions that one does not readily admit to any longer: companionship, commitment, even love.'' ''The Fall'' is old-fashioned in just that way. By combining the adrenaline-filled appeal of a mountaineering adventure with the emotional clout of a love story, Simon Mawer has created an exemplary model of that quaint old relic -- the satisfying read.

Gary Krist's most recent book is a novel, ''Extravagance.''

Published: 01 - 05 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 7

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