A symbolic river flows through poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje's "Divisadero," connecting the mountains of California and Texas Hold 'em tables of Las Vegas to the French countryside of 100 years ago and wars that only beget more wars.
Ondaatje loads his latest novel with metaphor and mysticism, then hangs it on a rugged framework of tough realism, like that in a sweeping Western saga, full of grit and spit and bravado.
He takes us on a quest, literary and tragically romantic. It starts on a California farm with Anna, Claire and Coop, three unrelated children raised like brother and sisters by Anna's father after life deals them all a pretty rough hand.
Ondaatje doesn't stay there, though, soon giving us a preview of the second half of his short novel (not even 300 pages) and its parallel life story of a one-eyed French poet and writer, Lucien Segura.
The stories are loosely joined by the grown Anna, who has moved into Segura's last house while finishing a research project on his life. How she gets there is barely explained. How Claire winds up in the San Francisco public defender's office is not explained at all. The meatiest parts follow Coop's transformation into a card sharp under the tutelage of a crew in Lake Tahoe, as he is groomed for the big score.
But that game quickly plays out.
The whats and whens of his creations are far less important to the writer than the hows and whys. Jumping through time and space, Ondaatje delves into themes of betrayal and salvation, of near-incest and brutality, forging destinies on mere skeletons of character.
The book's title can be read three ways: It is the name of a street Anna lived on in San Francisco, but that is no more than trivia.
The street name, it is explained, could come from the Spanish word for "division," but it also could derive from "divisar," meaning "to gaze at something from a distance."
That is how we see the three Californians, the Frenchman and his neighbors, the lovers who move in and out of their arms and dreams.
We are seeing past their self-perceptions to who they really are. It is like looking down on a familiar landscape from an airplane; all obstacles are removed, revealing how each piece fits into the greater whole.
Ondaatje is no jetstream of consciousness writer, though. He fills his pages with adventure and some great scenes while simultaneously expanding the boundaries of what a novel can do.
As in his other works, which include "The English Patient" and "Anil's Ghost," "Divisadero" is a journey of discovery and loss, of finding out when one stops being the person of his or her youthful dreams.
In this novel, the moment can be as clear as a kick in the head, as soft as a misspoken name, as jarring as a vision of death foretold.
At one point in the young Anna's travels, a truck driver quotes the opening of "David Copperfield" -- "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
It is a question that haunts this tale of passion and loss, and those who move through it on life's endless river.
Melinda Miller is Web Editor of the News.
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 273 pages, $25