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A self-made ghost revisits his haunted life

The Inhabited World
By David Long
Houghton Mifflin, 277 pp., $23

There is one dark zone of human experience where many have traveled but from where only the hopeful return. The suicidal consciousness is a place, we surmise, filled with confusion and regret, but it goes without saying that we don't get many dispatches from the front -- at least once the beleaguered has, as David Long puts it laconically in his resonant novel, ``slid over a line." That Long has chosen to name his hapless protagonist Molloy, after Beckett's famously dying character, suggests the thematic arc of ``The Inhabited World." This is a novel starring a man who ended his life in 1992, and who appears as a post mortem consciousness (OK, ghost) a decade later, trying to make sense of his actions.

Author of several novels, Long is best known for his story collection ``Blue Spruce " and the novel ``The Falling Boy" ; his preferred fictional landscape is an interior one, a province where longing and memory often collide. Unfolding with slow, almost seamless precision, ``The Inhabited World" takes a while to fall into -- how likely is it, after all, to have a returning suicide as a point of view? -- and yet the story is beautifully considered, with a crystalline calm at its center. We know from the outset the unhappy ending of this story, and because the worst has already happened, there's a certain relief to watching its accumulated sorrows unfold.

When Evan Molloy swallows a gun that bleak day in 1992, he is in his early 50s, living in the Seattle area, on medical leave from his blandly depicted job as some kind of marketing analyst. His family has finally left him: Claudia, his long-suffering wife who has married him twice, and Janey, her daughter by another marriage, who has her own troubles facing down adolescence. In the last few weeks of his life, Evan has all but stopped sleeping and has taped over the windows with tin foil. And he has gone down to the cellar to visit the Ruger 9 mm stored high on a shelf, swaddled in a T-shirt and bound up with wire.

This is a grim picture, and it's most of what Evan himself can recall when the novel opens -- he's an ethereal presence roaming around the old bungalow near Puget Sound, spying over the years on various occupants of the house. What he can't do is leave the grounds or reclaim the memories that got him to the other side -- the last walk down the stairs, the gunshot, the despair that took him there. So he's stuck here in a timeless and oddly painless present, sucking on his memories like lozenges, a fellow ``steeped in aftermath, as changed as steam is from water, as water from ice."

The straight man for Evan's current wanderings is the present tenant of the house, a woman named Maureen who has moved in hurriedly to escape a bad, possibly creepy affair with a married physician. We learn these details along with Evan: If he can walk through walls and loiter where he isn't noticed, he's nonetheless a spy with ethics, so he turns his head when Maureen leaves the shower but tries to stop her stalker-like lover from bullying her. Watching her evokes his own memories, of a life that was only half-bad: A charismatic, Navy-veteran father, a mother he adored, a young love with Claudia that failed the first time around when he betrayed her. And then the beginning of panic and fatalism, a wrong-body feeling that wasn't helped by sleep aids, talk therapy, any of the usual mid-range panaceas. Now this nagging realization, 10 years after the end, that the elusive quality of happiness, throughout Evan's life, was for him defined as a state of relief: ``of being rid of something awful." Until that last week of 1992, when the Xanax and the other lifelines failed.

``The Inhabited World" is, of all things, a quiet novel. Even Molloy's eventual realization that his was a ``surmountable despair" feels more poignant than catastrophic; that is the sweet balm and promise of an afterlife, even one trapped for a time in the old homestead. As central as she is to the chain of events, Maureen is a sketchily realized, peripheral character, clearly envisioned as some sort of tangible tether for Evan's quest for acceptance . What Long masterfully achieves is the precise interior focus of a man whose life is circling the drain, and he does this without either high drama or sentimentality. And let's not forget the Beckett influence, whose Nell in ``Endgame" says that ``nothing is funnier than unhappiness." A telemarketer selling auto glass calls Evan in the last hour of his life, asking, with generic innocence, ``Is this a bad time?"

Yes, and most lives, it turns out, are full of them. ``The Inhabited World" uncovers, finally, what is worth sticking around for: the scent of morning coffee, the daughter in a school play.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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