Mona Simpson’s third novel is in some ways a departure from her first two. The central figure of both earlier books (Anywhere But Here, 1987, and The Lost Father, 1991) was a girl named Ann Stevenson who later changed her name to Mayan Atissi and who was abandoned by her father and at times by her mother, who tried to make her a child film star. As a grown woman, she became obsessed with finding the lost father, and destroyed her life in the search. Both novels also distressed some reviewers because of their irregular narrative methods and their sometimes thorny prose.
A Regular Guy continues Simpson’s obsession with abandoned girls, this time centering the action on Jane di Natali, who never meets her father until she is ten years old and who has a sometimes inattentive mother. The narrative, however, is straightforward and Jane is depicted only as a child and a teenager; there is no reason for her as an adult to become obsessed with a lost father, since she has had Owens for a number of years. In many ways, A Regular Guy is less about Jane’s abandonment than about the long process of the accommodations reached by her and her father. The novel has little in the way of a plot—it is more an exploration of character.
Jane is the product of an encounter which was casual to Tom Owens, if less so to Mary di Natali. Owens never lived with Mary and while he sent money to help support her and her daughter, he never acknowledged his fatherhood during the ten years in which Mary and Jane lived in a succession of communes in the Pacific Northwest. When Jane is ten, Mary fixes up an old truck by putting blocks on the pedals and a cushion on the driver’s seat, so that Jane can reach the pedals. When she has taught Jane how to drive, she gives her seventy-five dollars, maps and directions to Owens’ house in central California and sends her on her way.
Owens accepts her to the extent of taking her in, although he still does not accept the fact that he is her father. Since his brief interlude with Mary, Owens has helped make an important discovery in genetics, has founded a firm called Genesis, and has become a very wealthy man by exploiting his discovery. On the track of another breakthrough, he pours many of the profits into a new company, called Exodus. After Jane has lived with him for a few months, he sends for Mary, chartering an airplane to bring her to California. He sets Mary and Jane up in a rented bungalow, goes on with his affair with Olivia, and ignores his daughter for considerable periods of time.
Owens is an interesting character, full of paradoxes. He is reminiscent of successful New Age tycoons such as Bill Gates who make countless millions of dollars in technologies never thought of fifty years ago. Instead of being absent, like the father in the earlier books, Owens is the center of interest in most of A Regular Guy. He is a successful scientist who had only one semester of college education. He has never had to worry about money and seems not to care about it, but he is a highly successful negotiator in business matters. He is also a skilled manager of people who work for him, but he allows a financial expert to take over his company and eventually to ease him out of control.
Owens can be generous, but he seems to have little empathy for others, even the beneficiaries of his generosity. Three times his generosity takes the form of buying a car for a friend. On an impulse, he buys a handicapped-equipped van for his friend Noah, not knowing whether Noah wants such a vehicle. He replaces Mary’s truck with a new car, but when it is being repaired he refuses her request to borrow one of his three cars for an important errand. He worries that Olivia drives an ancient Volkswagen Beetle, and buys her a car she does not want; she wrecks it after three weeks. His actions can be cruel. Mary begs him to insure Jane’s financial future, in case of some disaster. He does so, but he never tells either Mary or Jane that he has, leaving them in a dependent position.
Owens’ peculiarities extend to his conception of what a father should do. He disapproves of what goes on in the public schools, so he denies Jane permission to enroll, trusting her education to two sisters who are retired from teaching. Jane at first enjoys the situation, since her experience with schools while living on communes was only occasional, but she begins to feel the lack of contact with children of her own age. Owens resists, however, despite the urgings of Olivia, Mary, Noah, and eventually the two tutors, and Jane is ready for junior high school before he capitulates.
Owens is a vegetarian and something of a food faddist. He gives financial support to...
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