ly news, and no group is more aware of itsncost than the professional soldiers whomnUdall pillories. But that does not changenthe fact that national leaders must benprepared to deal with a dangerous worldnFamily as Joke or IsolationnJohn Barth: Sabbatical; G. P. Putnam’snSons; New York.nAnne Tyler: Dinner at the HomesicknRestaurant; Alfred A. Knopf; NewnYork.nby Betsy Clarkenjyiore than anything, it seems,nmodern novelists want to present us withnprofound analyses of the American family,nand more than anything we want tonread them. But Kepone and the CentralnIntelligence Agency keep getting in thenway. Remember Kepone? John Barthndoes. And Susan and Fenn, his centralncharacters in Sabbatical, can’t forgetn”runaway nuclear proliferation outsidenthe Soviet bloc” and “dreadful governmentsnin Brazil, El Salvador, Argentina,nChile, Guatemala …” Rapidly vanishingnare the literary references with whichnan amateur might enrich his meditationnon family and responsibility versus personalnadventure and fulfillment. In theirnplace is almost obsessive footnoting tonthe publications of Amnesty Internationalnand the alleged untruths ofnHenry Kissinger.nAs one might suspect from the title,nhowever, Sabbatical could hardly bendesaibed as a call to action. No, Fenn, anmiddle-aged stool pigeon, and Susan,nhis young wife of seven years, are respondingnto these world crises in thentypical way of liberals: yachting andnshooting the breeze. Not that consciencendoesn’t nag. “In her [Susan’s] opinionnwe should be laying siege to the State De-nMiss Clarke is a frequent contributor tonthe Chronicles.nas it is. The problem posed by books likenCountdown Zero is that they often affectnthe sensibilities of the general publicnwithout swaying a single aggressor fromnhis path. •npartment’s Chilean desk, for example,ninstead of idling up Chesapeake Bay,”nFenn explains earnestly. So who’s stoppingnthem?nSabbatical typifies the disturbingntrend of Earth-style novelists toward substitutingnpolitical statements for such obsoletenelements of fiction as characterndevelopment, plot, and perception. Asnif to counter any anticipated criticism ofntheir work on the basis of this replacement,nthose novelists seem to be saying,n”This book may be a dog, but at least mynheart’s in the right place.” And in factnsuch defensiveness may be effective.nWhile this and similar novels have sufferednimflattering remarks by reviewers,nwhen the thoroughly abominable qualitynof such fiction is considered, thencriticism is preposterously mild. Authorsnlike Barth must use such ideologicalndecoys because they have no idea aboutnhow to approach their chosen subjectnwithout offending the members of thenspecial-interest groups most likely tonawait their work. What, after all, is thenliberal’s disposition toward the tra­nnnditional family? Feminists find it patriarchalnand oppressive. Homosexuals find itnsuperfluous, even revolting. Most, accordingnto current wisdom, find it interestingnfor a while, but ultimatelynstultifying and dull. Many liberals approachneven a simple definition of thenterm with fear and dread.nWishing to receive credit for taking onnserious matters while avoiding anythingnof real substance, Barth has decided tonview the contemporary family as a joke,ntackling it with an overstylized narrativenand a comic tone. Like John Irving, henpeoples a dangerous world with goofyncharacters who indulge in eccentric actionsnand are victimized by bizarre circumstances.nHis protagonists are inevitablynselfish, over-educated, and pamperedn; all of them make one wonder whynnuclear-freeze proponents mourn thenpossible destmction of the human race.n”I wished I had more character, or, lackingnthat, more talent,” said Fenn of hisnyouth. A little bit of either would havenbeen a vast improvement. But don’t benfooled. Sabbatical, Fenn’s look at his lifentoday, is the work of an author who isnconvinced of his moral and intellectualnsuperiority.nThe insufferable Susan and Fenn arentaking time off from teaching andnwriting to bum around the Caribbean onntheir 33-foot sailboat and think throughntheir lives. Despite her poor grammarnand basement I.Q. (“You underminenevery government that puts theirnMHMHHSInFebruary 1983n