Clumsey steps

Should he try again. perhaps David Payne would do better with fewer words and a milieu closer to his North Carolina home,” concluded The New York Times review of his 1984 debut novel, “Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.” David Payne accepted its advice in his second — “Early From the Dance.”

Adam Jenrette is a 3l-year-old painter who inherits his aunt’s home in eastern North Carolina. Returning home from New York forces him to confront his past when, as a teenager, Adam betrayed his best friend, Cary, by falling in love with his girlfriend, Jane.

Years later, Cary committed suicide, never recovering from the blow. The novel builds up to the moment Cary learns what happened, and how Adam and Jane love each other again and resolve their conflicting emotions over their past.

But reading the book presents different questions. It begins in the present, reaches a literal cliffhanger, then delays the conclusion with a 300-page flashback. Will the reader plow on or cheat and look at the end? Such temptation shouldn’t be made available.

The novel also tests the reader’s patience by its constant intensity and lack of discrimination. Written in the first person from Adam’s and Jane’s viewpoint, no detail is too insignificant to be described and interpreted. A redecorated room looks different than the ”resounding clarity” of before. A clod of earth in a painting is stippled with “accurate grass.” Descriptions like these — repeated over and over — encourage skipping over to the next interesting bit.

Dialogue consists of solid paragraphs like:

“[Jane and Morgan] looked over at our entrance, and Cleanth said, ‘you brought down the stereo, good idea’ and Morgan said ‘jolly’ and Cleanth said, ‘were we rude?’ and pouted, and Morgan pouted back and said, ‘very,’ and Cleanth said ‘it was all A’s fault’ — he looked at me — ‘you shouldn’t be so interesting,’ and, despite myself, I think l beamed.”

That was a short sample. Most go on for half a page. When they aren’t trading chit-chat, characters interpret each other emotions in the manner of psychologists and barge off into serious monologues about the meaning of life.

The land and people of Eastern North Carolina are sympathetically described. Payne knows the area well and it shows. but he is far more interested in the interior landscape of Adam and Jane.

“Early From the Dance” is burdened with a complex organization and stylistic touches that make reading it a task for a martyr. Portions of it are powerful and affecting, but are trapped in leaden prose that deadens the scenes. The final question is not whether or not Adam and Jane are reunited, but how long the reader will put up with Payne’s prose.