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Day tripper

In 24 hours, doctor, husband, and father Henry encounters more than one kind of violence

By Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 289 pp., $26

Ian McEwan, winner of the 1998 Booker Prize for his novel ''Amsterdam," wields his pen as if it were a scalpel, creating precision sentences, carving out graceful passages of transcendent prose, and, upon occasion, endowing his characters with razor-sharp intelligence. No wonder then that the central character of ''Saturday," McEwan's latest offering, is a London neurosurgeon of exceptional intuition and skill. Henry Perowne is also that rarity in modern fiction: an essentially happy man. Excited by his work, still in love with his wife of more than two decades, and slightly baffled by but enormously proud of the achievements of his grown children, Daisy and Theo, Perowne lives a rich and rewarding city life, taking pleasure in good food, music, wine, and sport. It is only lately, since 9/11, that Perowne has begun to understand that his comfortable world is in jeopardy. Awaking at dawn on a Saturday in February 2003, when thousands will take to the streets in London for Britain's biggest-ever peace demonstration against the impending war in Iraq, Perowne perceives a palpable threat to his family and his way of life.

The day begins ominously. Perowne is summoned from his bed by what appears to be a waking dream, a kind of surreal observation: a plane, heading into Heathrow, is flying low over the trees and will almost certainly crash. He is too far away to see or hear the explosion, and he begins to wonder if he has been the only one to observe this bizarre phenomenon. Putting on his dressing gown, Perowne descends to the kitchen, where Theo has just returned from his evening out. Perowne turns on the television but at first finds no mention of the event; hours later, he will hear that the plane safely crash-landed and that its occupants, two supposedly radical Islamic pilots, have been taken into custody. A copy of the Koran has been found in the cockpit. A suicide mission gone wrong? A demonstration of terrorist power on a day when it seems that all of London is agitating against the war?

Checking for bulletins throughout the morning, Perowne makes plans for his day: a squash game with his colleague; a trip to the market for the ingredients of his famous fish stew; a visit to his mother in a nursing home; and a quick stop by Ladbroke Grove to listen to a rendition of a blues tune his son's band has newly created. The day will culminate in a kind of family reunion at dinner. His daughter has been away in Paris and will return with the galleys of her first collection of poetry. His wife's father, Grammaticus, a crusty poet who has offended Daisy's tender sensibilities by criticizing her work, will also be there: Perowne hopes for a reconciliation. Late for his squash date, Perowne gets behind the wheel of his silver Mercedes 500, a car he unabashedly cherishes, and almost at once finds himself broadsided by a fidgety, amoral, and decidedly violent man named Baxter. Confronted in an alleyway by Baxter and his two minions, Perowne is manhandled and pressed up against a wall. He knows that he is about to be beaten, possibly killed. Perowne's medical acumen saves him, however, when he instantly diagnoses Baxter as having Huntington's disease, a debilitating neurological constellation of tics, trembling hands, and volatile emotional states that will one day end in death. This correct diagnosis -- accompanied by reckless promises of a cure on Perowne's part -- impresses Baxter enough to let Perowne go. Perowne knows that he has outed Baxter in front of his thug friends and worries about the repercussions of having used his physician's skills to save his own skin, but he is grateful enough for the reprieve. It is that incident in the alleyway, which Perowne believes he has successfully put behind him as he makes his way to his squash game, that will explode later in the day when a perceived threat will become suddenly and horrifying real.

The announcement that a novel takes place in a single day is usually a recipe for literary disaster. In the wrong hands, such a conceit can be deadly: Few fictional lives can withstand an hour-by-hour analysis; fewer writers can carry it off. McEwan, however, is a master of the minutely observed moment: ''Perhaps down at the molecular level there's been a chemical accident while he slept -- something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events." In McEwan's work, small cities are contained within mere sentences; whole universes are contained within single paragraphs. ''And the Perownes' own corner, a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam enclosing a perfect circle of garden -- an eighteenth-century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting." McEwan means to show us the before and after of a life, how a contented and placid existence can change in an instant. Others of McEwan's most recent and best works, ''Atonement" and ''Enduring Love," have also pivoted upon a single moment, and has there ever been a more brilliant demonstration of this notion than ''The Child in Time"? (Read it for its harrowing first chapter -- surely among the best in all of contemporary literature.)

McEwan has done his homework: Perowne is a believable neurosurgeon. There is perhaps more medical data here than the lay reader will be able to absorb, but the technique of creating layers upon layers of reality is tremendously effective: One thoroughly believes in Perowne, so much so that when McEwan's character is forced to make an extraordinary fictional leap, the reader is more than willing to go with him.

Henry Perowne is not a perfect man. We are given to understand that he is something of a philistine. He likes music but simply doesn't understand literature; he is ignorant of even the best-known literary works, a device that allows his poet-daughter to expound upon poetry and to quote her own -- McEwan's only misstep in an otherwise exceptional novel. The daughter's verse is at times laughable. We are meant to appreciate this budding poet, but what are we to make of lines that compare a man's tumescence to an ''excited watering can" or that observe a man in a shower shampooing ''both beards"? This particular subplot would have been considerably strengthened had McEwan created for Daisy credible lines, a task of which the versatile novelist is surely capable. Perowne's politics will not please many readers either -- he delivers an impassioned argument in favor of war -- but then again, they aren't meant to. What is intended here is an intimate rendering of contemporary Western civilization under threat.

Few literary events are today met with as much enthusiasm as the publication of a McEwan novel. ''Saturday," a brilliant and graceful hymn to the contented contemporary man, will be greeted with cheers.

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