Dennis Bock's earlier novels are set in historic eras and feature evocative characters. "The Communist's Daughter" is told through the lens of time and vision of expat Dr. Norman Bethune in a fictionalized, romanticized father/daughter tale. A second novel, "The Ash Garden," takes on the aftermath of Hiroshima and casts a disfigured young victim with a German physicist and his Jewish refugee wife.
"Going Home Again" (Alfred A. Knopf, 258 pages, $24.95) tackles the present, toggling between Madrid and Toronto, where successful expat loner Charlie Bellerose is building another language school in his international chain. His life is a succession of comings and goings; he's unable to settle anywhere more than a few years. He cannot forge any enduring relationships save one, but at 12, his cherished daughter Ava seems appropriately anxious over her father's penchant for quitting, as if he might quit her.
Opening paragraphs bait us with the death of Kaj Adolfsson and promise a mystery, though they offer no hint as to who Adolfsson is or whether that death was a murder or accident — only that it coincides with the disappearance of Charlie's only sibling, Nate. Nor is it immediately revealed that the dead man was partnered with Nate's freshly exed wife, Monica. The ensuing pages are mined with meandering dips into the protagonist's history, recounting an itinerary of middling relationships that feel like layovers. Bock is able to transport the reader deftly enough for all the intercontinental bounding and decade hopping, but a lack of critical information leaves the reader on hold through such scenes as a four-page, detail-clogged conversation over breakfast: She popped the toast in her mouth, chewed and swallowed, then sipped her coffee, while significant elements such as a brother's disappearance are barely dusted and Charlie's and Nate's orphaned status is a mere shadow in the past.
Back in college after his close friend Miles is killed, Charlie takes up with his grieving girlfriend, Holly. And while Holly evolves into the love of his life, he leaves her behind, too. After meeting up decades later, it's implied they might resume, but the question is, do we care?
First-person narrative in fiction is a tricky thing, more so when the main character is as vague as Charlie Bellerose, who witnesses interesting things but confronts them with little personal investment and zero introspection. With no real focus in a chain of barely related events, this third work in Bock's oeuvre reads more like resuscitated notes for a first novel. Resting a little too comfortably on the deserved laurels of his earlier, richer novels, Bock turns from historical fiction to the present in what feels like a misstep.
Sarah Stonich is the author of "The Ice Chorus," "These Granite Islands" and "Vacationland." She lives in Minneapolis.