THE NAKEDS, by Lisa Glatt. Regan Arts, 278 pp., $24.95.
"The naked and the nude," Robert Graves observed, "stand as wide apart as love from lies."
That slippery distinction could be the epigraph for Lisa Glatt's sly new book, "The Nakeds." Glatt, a poet whose most recent novel was "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That," knows just how to peel away the pretensions of modern life. In the sunlight of her prose, everybody looks pink and vulnerable.
"The Nakeds" begins in 1970, as Asher and Nina Teller are having another vicious argument, and their daughter, Hannah, decides she's had enough and walks to school by herself. Trying to stay off a neighbor's lawn, Hannah veers into the street just as a young drunk careens by:
"It was a confrontation," Glatt writes, "the briefest coming-together and breaking-apart, which propelled Hannah into the sky so that she was as far away from her warring parents . . . as possible, in the air, turning over -- her two feet not even sharing the earth with them."
Young Hannah will spend the next decade enduring a series of orthopedic treatments to rebuild her shattered leg. A toe-to-groin cast with some Frankenstein hardware moves her to the sidelines of adolescence, where she is neither one of the cool injured athletes nor the pitiable handicapped.
To some indecipherable extent, the emotional energy here is autobiographical: Glatt suffered a similar accident when she was a child and spent years in treatment. But much of this novel imagines the wholly fictitious life of the young man who hit Hannah and left her on the road. He's a good-looking alcoholic so crippled by guilt that he lurks around the hospital and her home. Glatt brings us right into a consciousness fermenting in self-pity: "Alone -- even stoned alone or drunk alone -- meant alone with his thoughts and his thoughts inevitably turned to the girl."
This psychological drama slides along an electric wire of suspense, but what really charges "The Nakeds" is a weird development in Hannah's home: Her newly remarried mother and hip, young stepfather want to improve their marriage by being totally honest and open, an admirable if naive goal they pursue by taking off all their clothes. "They turned up the thermostat and moved around the house," Glatt writes. "Her mom did laundry, scooped the clothes they were not wearing into the washing machine. [Her stepfather] pushed the vacuum in the living room. . . . It was a lot to see. It was more of them than Hannah wanted to see." Soon, the family is packing up the car and heading off for weekends to a nudist colony.
This too-revealing setting is a perfect arena in which to explore Hannah's peculiar status as someone who is never nude. "There was her leg covered up with plaster," Glatt writes. "She was always hidden. . . . She wasn't whole, not really. She was a girl in pieces."
Peculiar as Hannah may feel, though, Glatt implies that each of these characters remains veiled and fragmented. The stepfather insists, "Honesty is important. Getting it all out in the open," but for all that candor, he's a self-righteous philanderer, as eager to party as any randy suburbanite in John Updike's "Couples." And the drunken driver who injured Hannah so many years ago is layered in his own lies and self-deceptions.
Dressed or undressed, every one of the men in this compelling novel is a cad. They may be stripped bare, but they're never denied their humanity, their urgings to be better, kinder, more honest. If they sometimes look ridiculous, well, don't we all?