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Sorting through life with the aid of Walt Whitman

Flan Parker has one of those jobs that only people in novels do.

She's in the resale business. But, in Flan's case, there's a twist: she buys the contents -- cheaply, and sight unseen -- of abandoned self-storage units, then sorts out the stuff inside and resells it off of her tiny front lawn in an ongoing "garage sale." (In real life this makes your neighbors hate you. In Flan's case, of course, they love her.)

As the 30something mom of two young kids, Flan needs to do this "reselling" on her lawn and on eBay in order to help support her family. Her husband Shae is a long-term student supposedly in the process of writing his doctoral dissertation -- on TV, or more particularly, on soap operas. But Shae seems to have stalled out; at the very least, he spends suspiciously large amounts of time watching soaps, and very little time actually writing anything.

We step into Flan's story at this precise moment in her life: full of pressing needs, full of love for her small kids, full of stress. In "Self-Storage," California-based fiction writer Gayle Brandeis gives us a character that's quirky and smart, if a bit blind to what's really happening to people around her.

Shae, for example. What's going on with his academic career, which is the reason they're living in cruddy grad student housing in the first place?

And her neighbors, including Sodaba, the Afghan woman Flan wants to get to know, but who rebuffs any prying on Flan's part. Or Pia, who seems not to want to acknowledge how sick her mother is in the Philippines, preferring to immerse herself in scientific work.

Will Flan sort through their underlying problems? Can she, when she is so swamped with the work and emotions of being a self-supporting mother that she can barely breathe?

Flan, in the course of telling her story -- which is presented first-person style -- begins to grow on us. She has, for one thing, very human sensibilities toward the world: at times pulled strongly away from something (her husband, her friends), she finds herself five pages later rediscovering something good and redeemable about them. She changes, over the course of the book, and that's the mark of a good character's development.

Flan has one big love in life, besides her family: Walt Whitman. Obsessed with the poet and his "Leaves of Grass" since childhood, she turns to his verse over and over again, in her mind, as she struggles to cope with her life. The lines of Whitman's poetry laced like fine ribbon through Brandeis' story don't jar; they add to, rather than take away from, the flow of the novel itself.

And in the end, for Flan, Whitman even provides a second chance at life.

"Self-Storage" may have a gimmicky conceit to fit its title, but in the end, we forgive the author that indulgence. Flan's story is too readable for anything else.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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Self-Storage

By Gayle Brandeis

Ballantine Books, 288 pages, $24

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