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Washington Post Book World
Friday, June 30th, 2006
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Lost and Found: A Novel

by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Amazing Race

A review by Ron Charles

In Carolyn Parkhurst's debut novel, The Dogs of Babel, a widower tries to teach his dog to speak in hopes of hearing how his wife died. That irresistibly bizarre premise helped the unknown Washington author break through the publicity din and secure all kinds of enthusiastic attention in 2003. Her new novel, Lost and Found, has an equally risky plot, but this time the danger involves banality rather than freakishness. The title refers to the reality TV show of the same name, and the chapters are narrated by contestants racing around the world looking for clues to win a million dollars. You'd think that tired premise would be the first one voted off the island at a network retreat, but just last week NBC added "Treasure Hunter" to this badly worn genre, so somebody somewhere must think there's more life here. Parkhurst doesn't help her case by delivering all those familiar arguments about the cultural implications of reality TV: the self-consciousness of modern life, the democratization of fame, the artifice of contemporary reality. In the future, everyone will make these famous points for 15 minutes.

But fortunately, what really interests Parkhurst is quiet, private agonies of love and shame, and on this score she delivers several surprisingly moving stories. As on The Amazing Race, the contest here is really just an excuse to bring together a diverse group of people who would otherwise never be thrown together. (Before reality TV, we had to rely on Lamaze classes or jury duty.) The contestants come in pairs, most of which are just background figures for the dominant voices that quickly emerge:

The two brothers from Boston are nice guys but not too interesting. The "young millionaire investors" are stick figures we never get to know. Same for "the former high school sweethearts who have recently been reunited after twenty years apart." But Juliet and Dallas, "the former child stars," add some bitter humor about the corrosive nature of fame. Having lived her entire life -- even in utero -- under the celebrity spotlight, Juliet views her appearance on a reality TV show as a chance to remake herself into a more "real" person, "good-natured and down-to-earth." She isn't merely vain; she lives in a vise of self-consciousness that renders her incapable of spontaneity or authenticity -- or friendship.

The darkest, most troubled couple on the show are Justin and Abby, "Team Brimstone." As they tell everyone, constantly, "the power of the Lord rescued them from homosexuality and delivered them into the loving grace of Christian marriage." They met in an ex-gay ministry called Redemption that trained them to discard homosexual thoughts and channel their affections to members of the opposite sex. How easily Parkhurst could have delivered the requisite liberal satire of homophobic evangelical Christians. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but she does something far more interesting and sympathetic. Determined to convince himself that he's straight, poor Justin has been living a kind of reality TV life long before Lost & Found -- always watching himself, tending his desires, correcting himself. He salivates over the cameraman's abs while hugging his wife in a desperate imitation of husbandly affection.

"If, for a moment, a wiggling fish of a thought should happen to skim the surface of my mind," he explains with faux confidence, "I simply stop it in its path. I scoop it up and hold it in the air until it suffocates." Parkhurst grasps the tragedy of his conflicted soul: the constantly renewed cycle of self-loathing and self-righteousness, the tragic misdirection of spiritual energy that eventually makes Justin a very dangerous character.

His wife, meanwhile, is more honest with herself about the challenge they're facing. She adores her husband and longs to be rid of the shame she feels, but, she confesses, "It's like teaching a plant to respond to the moon instead of the sun." In one of the most touching moments, she tells us that she can't wait to be very old, "when I can finally see myself at peace. . . . Seventy, eighty, ninety years old. None of this will matter then. Right?"

A mother-and-daughter team, Laura and Cassie, serves as the novel's central characters. They're ordinary people in a way the others aren't, which makes them useful foils and more reliable narrators, but Parkhurst also spends more time with them, exploring the currents of love and exasperation that run between them. Laura worries that she's been a shamefully inattentive mother, but of course the last thing 17-year-old Cassie wants now is her mother's chumminess. "No one else ever loves you the way your children do when they're young," Laura thinks in the wake of a typically sarcastic, frustrating conversation with Cassie. "I try not to spend too much time thinking about those days, because I know they're perfect only in memory, and I know I need to focus on the girl I've got in front of me right now. But sometimes I can't help but give in to it."

Beyond the cameras and the manufactured "encounters" of this TV show, Parkhurst catches us again and again with these moments of real tenderness. Long before the end, the million dollars doesn't matter; other things, far more important, are found here. And that's reason enough to tune in.

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