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Originally published Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 5:03 AM

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‘All the Dead Yale Men’: a family’s legacy of troubles

Craig Nova’s “All the Dead Yale Men” picks up where his 1982 masterpiece “The Good Son” left off, as the Mackinnon clan continues to deal with family legacies of the financial and emotional kind.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘All the Dead Yale Men’

by Craig Nova

Counterpoint, 337 pp., $26

Thirty years may seem like a long time for a novelist to wait before penning a sequel to his signature work. Then again, if your signature work is a visceral tale about struggles between two generations of men, maybe 30 years is what you need to bring a third generation onto the scene. That’s what Craig Nova does in “All the Dead Yale Men,” his follow-up to his 1982 masterpiece, “The Good Son.”

The earlier novel depicted a primal showdown between newly returned World War II veteran Chip Mackinnon and his wealthy manipulative father. The issue in contention: Chip’s incendiary affair with a coolheaded, strong-willed woman whom Chip’s “coarse, charming” father was tempted by himself.

The book’s testosterone overload was nicely mitigated by recurring chapters from “Mrs. Mackinnon’s Book of Animals, Reptiles, Plants, Trees, Birds, Bugs and Flowers” in which Chip’s mother throws in her own highly eccentric two cents on the father-son power struggle. Each chapter detailed the life cycle and mating habits of the creatures that roamed the Mackinnon’s rural Pennsylvania estate, written in such a way as to acerbically comment on the tug of war between her husband and son.

In “All the Dead Yale Men,” Nova’s 14th novel, Pop Mackinnon and his wife are long gone, though they’re vividly remembered, and Chip himself, a retired spy, is on his way out (his funeral is mentioned on page one).

The setting is Boston and the narrator is Chip’s son, Frank. We know from the start that Chip has swindled Frank in money matters. We also know that Frank, a criminal prosecutor, is in “a bad spot” and wishes he still had his father around to advise him.

Frank’s trouble in “Yale Men” starts with his college-age daughter Pia who, after years of being a model child, is going through what he sees as a “delayed rebellion.” She has taken up with a lout named Aurlon Miller, dropped her plans for law school and announced she’s bringing the Mackinnon line to an end. The family’s legacy, as she sees it, is too unsound to warrant its continuance.

So, another showdown. It’s of a different sort than Chip and Pop Mackinnon engaged in, but with one similarity: Frank behaves as ill-advisedly as Pop did in his day.

There’s a genuinely classical grandeur to Nova’s tales of erotic derailment and titanic family conflict. There’s also a sense of life as an absurdist pageant, where the ridiculous is so closely linked to the deadly serious that they seem like two facets of the same thing. (Chip’s incongruously festive death in “Yale Men” is a prime example.)

At times, the narrative tangles in “Yale Men,” with all their hidden agendas and out-of-left-field betrayals, rival those of “The Big Sleep.” What keeps you going is Nova’s way with ominous atmospherics, including his extraordinary powers of description, whether he’s evoking “the odd lint-colored light of a New England winter” or the smell inside a beauty salon (“like a cotton candy machine in a hot chemical factory”). And when Frank cuts to the essence of his and Pia’s situation, he seems to tap into some eternal truths.

“Maybe it’s easier to face up to a father’s death if you diminish him first,” he muses. “Or just defeat him in some way. You don’t even know you’re doing it. That’s how natural it is.”

In Nova’s world, nature — like this novel — is a real piece of work.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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