WHAT'S WRONG WITH AMERICA

Scott Bradfield; St. Martin's Press, 196 pages, $18.95
Americans: Rowdy, self-centered and smugly superficial, hell-bent on individualism at all costs. We prefer sitcoms to Masterpiece Theatre, beer (not even good beer) to wine, common image to distinctive substance. What is wrong with America? It's a question that has become a joke in itself, and a perfect title for Scott Bradfield's farcical novel.

What's Wrong With America follows three months in the life of Emma Delaney O'Hallahan, a 69-year-old hausfrau living in Orange County, who, after 40-plus years of marriage to a foul-tempered husband, loaded his 12-gauge shotgun and sent him to an early retirement. Slightly regretful, but happily unrepentant, she addresses a journal entry to her grandchildren, under the heading, "Mistakes I would not have committed": "I wouldn't have shot your grandpa in the back of the head, and if I had shot him in the back of the head, I sure wouldn't have used a shotgun. Boy, you should have seen that mess."

With husband Marvin safely buried in the backyard, Emma embarks on a new life: reading, drinking, exercising and seducing her bank manager. Marvin's ghost, however, begins making grotesque appearances -- first in Emma's dreams, then, increasingly, in her waking life. She becomes a woman on the edge -- of what, neither she nor we really know. With nosy neighbors, kind policemen, the bank manager and her weirded-out, Gen-Xer grandson Teddy snooping around, destruction seems imminent.

That sense of nearing catastrophe (combined with a thoroughly likable, if homicidal, protagonist) keeps Bradfield's novel moving. Though Emma herself doesn't seem to think she deserves happiness, Bradfield wants the reader to root for her all the way through. She isn't a bad character, just a woman driven slightly nutty (OK, maybe a lot nutty) by years of repressed anger. Her attempts to create a better life for herself are often pathetic, but always hilarious.

In his effort to keep the pace quick and the air humorous, Bradfield is occasionally undercut by a superficial tone. But he presents a serious answer to the title question. Throughout Emma's three precarious months of freedom, she attempts to incorporate principles of honesty and kindness into her life, virtues that were missing before. The author ends his story with a very funny plea for forgiveness and compassion, made by Teddy to his consciousness-raising, guru-loving mother Cassie. It its entirety, the passage is a funnier, more visceral version of that cliched statement, "Think Globally, Act Locally."

America hasn't had too may masters of farce, a genre usually reserved for older countries whose people more easily laugh at themselves. Hitherto, Americans' skins have been rather thin. But this, Scott Bradfield's second novel, marks the emergence of a farce master, one whose provenance is California, of all places. What's Wrong With America is a high-energy work -- a fluffy Lhasa apso that bites like a pit bull.

-- Barbara Strickland

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