The necessity of choosing is a fact of life. At even a tender age, one must choose between a doll or a tea set, a wagon or a tricycle, Captain Crunch or Frosted Flakes. As one becomes older, the choices become more difficult and more significant. When one is wise enough–lucky enough–to choose well, things remain fairly smooth. But a wrong choice–of mate or career in particuiar–almost always spells trouble, and usually for others besides the one who has chosen badly. The difficulty of making choices rises in direct propor­tion to the number of available alterna­tives. A severely limited number of alternatives eliminates the pangs of indecision, making the selection process easier: one’s life is not necessarily happier but it is certainly simpler. For instance, in medieval Europe a woman in her teens usually had only three possible options: she could continue to live with her family (if they so permitted); she could marry; she could take the veil. Life is no longer so broadly delineated; there are manifold alternatives, which is in some ways better. But a multitude of choices has a dangerous effect: once having chosen one is always aware of the other possible choices. When things get rough, one inevitably muses on what might have been, if only …

“[In the Palomar Arms is] a story demanding superlatives to describe its power.”–Publishers Weekly

Ms. Wolitzer’s and Mr. Walton’s novels are both about choosing and about coping with having chosen poorly. Each is also a commentary on taking responsi­bility for one’s choices, considering the effect of them on the others in one’s life, and living with the results. In the Palomar Arms has much the same flavor as the stew served for supper in the “Senior Home” that lends its name to the title: lukewarm, bland, tasteless. The dashes of spice that Ms. Wolitzer sprinkles in now and then (usually in the form of sexual intermezzos) don’t help much. This tale of an aimless young woman and a man bored and frustrated with marriage is soporific rather than poignant. College student Daphne has no discern­ible goals until she becomes involved with Kenny; her aims then seem merely to be rationalizing their relationship and becoming his wife. She apparently has no idea how to choose; she simply ac­cepts direction from whatever more dominant presences are around. Daphne moves through life as gullible as a puppy, as assertive as a sleepwalker.

Kenny, on the-other hand, can and has chosen, but he is now disillusioned with his choices. It appears that he hasn’t really chosen so badly, but that all the other possibilities “out there” seem ever so much more appealing and novel than his now-staid existence. His would, on the surface, seem to be a quite pleasant life: a good job, an attractive home, a beautiful wife, two delightful children. Appearances, of course, are deceptive. But Wolitzer does not–or cannot­–probe beneath superficiality, so the reader is unable to evaluate or to judge the protagonist and his choices. Kenny wants, or thinks he wants, something more–or perhaps it’s just something different. Wolitzer gives the reader no way to tell. Kenny goes after Daphne, when he meets her in a college night class, as if he were living in a fraternity house instead of wedded suburbia. His major problem, in the absence of any other explication, looks like boredom; his wimpy approach to his self-inflicted dilemma inspires much the same ennui to the reader.

In the hands of a writer of talent, one with a firm ethical anchor, such a story could mean something. But Ms. Wolitzer seems unable to offer either judgment or profundity. The tearing apart of a marriage is a soul-wrenching, life-changing process. No decent man (or woman) can simply negate a large block of years in his life and forget them. Kenny (that is, Wolitzer) never actually faces his responsibilities; he only worries about them. The denouement, when it at long last arrives, is thoroughly predictable: wife’s attempted suicide, husband’s frenzied remorse and renewed attempt to salvage the marriage. Ms. Wolitzer even evades the illicit lovers’ final meet­ing, bringing Kenny only to Daphne’s door. Finally, the emotionally mauled paramour quits her detested job and makes preparations to begin anew else­ where. Her quiet acceptance of the out-come of the affair is, presumably, an indi­cation that she has always known, deep down, that it would end this way. Her preparations for a change are apparently supposed to indicate her newly acquired emotional maturity.

Todd Walton’s Louie & Women is a different approach to choosing. Struc­turally, chapters guided by the third­ person narrator alternate with varying first-person discourse. The style is spare to the point of bareness. Walton appar­ently wants to present his characters in a kind of silhouette fashion. Louie & Women amounts to a series of nvignettes that would fit well into the format of a weekly television series, a little on the order of one from the early 70’s, Then Came Bronson. Mr. Walton is cited as the author of a screenplay as well as novels. The reader can see the connec­tion, but his strategy works nevertheless.

Louie is an adult dropout. He is first presented in a lettuce field where he has been employed as migrant labor. Gradu­ally, through subsequent flashbacklike chapters, a little more is learned about the choices that have led to his present situation–but virtually nothing of Louie the man. And that appears to be deliberate. Mr. Walton is saying: “Here is Louie and here are these women; these are their choices and the results.” Period. But with such spareness, he is able to imply judgment–of the tart whom Louie rescues from rape, of the pathetic woman who sells her body to a wealthy degen­erate in order to live what appears to her to be a refined, dignified existence, of the suicide of an older couple Louie meets in his wanderings.

The author presents these human be­ings with uncompromising honesty. They take responsibility for themselves, for their actions, their choices. Even when they run away, no blame is cast on another. They know right from wrong; if they sometimes choose to transgress–and they do–they are aware that it is a transgression. There is no rationalizing, no searching for “meaning,” no blather about “finding” themselves or “raising” their consciousness. And there in lies the major difference between Mr. Walton and Ms. Wolitzer. Besides the fact that Walton is a far more skillful writer, he is able to look even unpleasant aspects of humanness in the face and write clearly about them. Wolitzer peers out of the comer of her eye, makes excuses, and proceeds to wrap a bland cloak of am­biguity and rationalization around what­ever she sees.

Moral ambiguity, of course, is the order of the day in the 1980’s. It’s a per­nicious order. It’s the reason why In the Palomar Arms has received far more attention in print than Louie & W’omen has. Ms. Wolitzer follows slavishly the prevailing zeitgeist: the existence of right and wrong is flatly denied in favor of the much easier option of situation ethics. (Wolitzer’s Daphne “needs fre­quent reassurance that she is not re­sponsible for the destruction of his family, that it was an inevitability before she and Kenny ever met.”) Mr. Walton’s Louie is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s va­grants in Of Mice and Men: a some what weak, basically good but flawed and quite thoroughly confused man. His choice to run away after his wife’s cruel betrayal and a woman friend’s imprisonment (for her impulsive and misguided defense of Louie) is an admission of that weakness. But he makes no excuses: “I wasn’t strong enough.” Mr. Walton knows the differ­ence between right and wrong. Wrong–that is, sin–has existed since the dawn of man, a truism, but one that is forgotten or denied or ignored ever more fre­quently these days. One who chooses to do wrong may be forgiven, examined, explained, or understood, but he has still chosen to do wrong. The conflict between right and wrong has been a mainstay of literature for centuries. To deny the existence of wrong obviates that conflict, and with it, the excitement and illumination with which it informs literature. That’s why Wolitzer’s work has all the flavor and excitement of boiled zucchini. She’s reduced to writing about excuses and evasions. Louie Women seems to me a fine offering. Louie, con­fused and fallible though he may be, chooses, that is at least reaches for, virtue. That he sometimes falls short is an indi­cation of his humanity.