Some time ago, Red Squirrel reviewed The Long Haul by Amanda Stern; we bought the book at a stoop sale, direct from the author, on Eighth Avenue in Park Slope. Ms. Stern was not the only literary light at that stoop, however. Sitting right next to her was Lisa Selin Davis, author of Belly (Little, Brown, 2005). We picked up a copy of her novel, too, and I read it.

Belly, Ms. Davis’s first novel, tells the weeklong tale of one Belly O’Leary, a father of three grown daughters who returns home from a four-year gambling/racketeering stint in the slammer to find his native Saratoga Springs, NY, awash in Starbucksian “progress.” The bar he owned is long gone, his trusted Republican machine has been run out of City Hall on a rail, he has a bum hip, his two grandsons treat him with unveiled contempt, and damned if he can find a job even at the new Wal-Mart (not that he really wants a job).

So Belly drinks. And drinks, and sleeps with a quickly dependent waitress, and drinks, and looks half-heartedly for his old mistress and partners in crime, and then decides to drink. And bang the waitress. And crash his daughter’s car. And go get drunk. And no jolly drunk, he, nor a particularly reflective one, but like his daughters, who house him and nurse him cherubically while he acts just plain nasty, I did stand by him. Or was I just standing by Ms. Davis and her way with the pen?

Sure enough, Belly becomes a sweetie in the end after confronting some not-so-subtle family trauma (a dead daughter, melodramatically unnamed until page 220 of 273), but the transformation wasn’t all too convincing. It happened very suddenly (p. 261, exactly), and with too much brackish water under the bridge for me to buy it. Meanwhile, I kept getting glimpses of another story, one that I respect Ms. Davis for choosing not to tell but that, at least for me, would have been more interesting than the relatively conventional family drama that unfolds: What about the gamblers? The shady Tammany Hall fat cats who disappeared? The people he once snorted all those lines with? There are hints, dreamlike allusions, and a brief, unsatisfying run-in with Loretta the Mistress Who Sold Him Out, but for the most part Davis creates a man but not his world. While that’s surely the point, limiting Belly to the domestic sphere makes him seem small and leaves his mettle mostly untested.

Like I said, Belly is a first novel, right down to the approximately 1,546 ecstatic blurbs from Ms. Davis’s presumed MFA professors and classmates that blanket its jacket and front matter. And while it is not quite as good as they say it is, it isn’t bad. I’m curious what she’s working on now; my hope is that it will be on the scale of Belly but with a few more risks taken, rather than the classic 600-page sophomore-novel sprawl. Belly made me hungry for some guts.

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