The title of John Dufresne's fourth novel nicely sums up his distaste for writing any English phrase without at least a double meaning. Requiem, Mass.: so the name of your hometown in Massachusetts also happens to be the name for the Catholic service for the dead - what's so strange about that? Nothing could be more fitting, especially when so many people you know leave you bereft, or (one way or another) try to.

Holding onto a single, linear reality or narrative thread is impossible for Johnny Boy, the book's hero/narrator without a surname (unless it is Dufresne). While a man-child - no boyhood was vouchsafed to him - his insane mother, runaway father, fey sister and cruel teachers all imposed upon him the imaginative necessity for constructing alternative realities. Of course, that is precisely what Johnny Boy's parents have been doing all along, so he is evidently doomed to become a writer of fiction by both nature and nurture.

Dufresne's orchestration of wayward strands of storytelling makes him a worthy heir to Laurence Sterne, James Joyce and William Faulkner. Like those masters, Dufresne is committed to the essential polyphony of individual consciousness. At one point, no fewer than five distinct strands of narrative intertwine, each one drawn from a different period of Johnny Boy's life. Reading this chapter feels like watching a juggler spin in the air five knives of completely different sizes (the title of the chapter is "Knife in the Head"). The risk is enormous; the author (like the juggler) stands on a knife's edge between self-destruction and redemption. But the alternatives to this perilous legerdemain are patently far worse for Johnny Boy: a mother's madness or a father's endless string of betrayals.

Like Sterne's and Joyce's, Dufresne's gloriously lucid chaos of prose presents an eminently comic approach to life. Like Faulkner's, his writing makes rich contrapuntal music out of boundless tragedy. Such a paradox surpasses the category of "tragicomedy," which Dufresne's publisher would have us accept. The fitful bonds of love that hold Johnny Boy's people to each other are neither comic nor tragic. They are pure song, the requiem we deliver upon those we love whose fates are beyond our control.

Michael Alec Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.

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