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Wacky humor weaves through two stories

Wacky humor weaves through two stories

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Patrick Somerville, who grew up in Wisconsin and lives in Chicago, won some notoriety as a young writer when the weekly Time Out Chicago named his debut short story collection, "Trouble," the best book by a Chicago author in 2006.

His first novel, "The Cradle," tells two touching stories of familial love that eventually curve and intersect 11 years later.

Comparisons will likely be made to the fiction of another Midwestern author, Charles Baxter ("The Soul Thief," "The Feast of Love") and with good reason: Somerville's style is similar to early Baxter, and each writes elegantly about familial relationships.

But Somerville, who is less than half Baxter's age, has a voice punctuated by a macabre and sometimes wacky sense of humor and a propensity to create grotesque characters.

"The Cradle" begins with a well-wrought, often comical exploration of contemporary fatherhood represented by Matt Bishop's 1997 odyssey in search of a lost family treasure.

Matt's wife, Marissa, is pregnant and insists on sending Matt to find the cradle that her mother, Caroline, rocked her in as a child. Matt's journey, following clues about the cradle's whereabouts as he travels through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota, is poignant and funny.

Although he confronts no Cyclops, Matt does run into a dwarfish woman who "could not have been younger than one-hundred years old" whom Matt calls Ancient Sylvia. Her son "the troll" lives in the attic.

About 60 years old, hunchbacked and inhumanly pale, with greasy hair and a bald crown, the troll possesses 2003 computer technology in 1997 that allows Matt to talk to Caroline's sister.

The second nearly parallel story shuttles us off to suburban Chicago in 2008. It begins by recounting when Bill and Renee Owen grudgingly send their son Adam to war in Iraq. The prospect of Adam dying in that "godforsaken place" reminds Renee of her first love and his death in Vietnam, which rekindles a secret that Somerville artfully uses to intertwine the stories.

"The Cradle" is not a perfect novel. Sometimes Matt's dialogue doesn't ring true as that of a high school-educated factory worker, and occasionally Somerville's humor is strained. Still, this novel will propel the career of a fine young novelist who has 30 years to develop into the writer that Charles Baxter is. He might make it there sooner.

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'The Cradle'

A novel by Patrick Somerville

Published by Little, Brown, 208 pages, $21.99

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Joseph Peschel is a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota.

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