Books Offer Explorations Of Language, Lands

----------------------------------------------------------------- "The Error of Our Ways" by David Carkeet Holt, $25 -----------------------------------------------------------------

If you're looking for a fun read, you may not be immediately compelled to pick up David Carkeet's latest novel. Its protagonists are two middle-aged men: a linguist and a gourmet-nut entrepreneur. A barrel of laughs, right?

Absolutely. In addition, "The Error of Our Ways" is a clever and compassionate look at the miscommunication and misunderstandings that occur between men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters.

Jeremy Cook, the linguist, meets Ben Hudnut, "the Nut King of St. Louis," when a mutual acquaintance arranges for Jeremy to study the rare speech patterns of Ben's 2-year-old daughter - the child uses a form called "partial reduplication" to express plurals ("boxes" becomes "box-ox"). Jeremy's secret motive, however, is to gather information for his new project, "A Lexicon of Hatred," which will reveal the soul of political conservatives based on the language they use.

So he can't wait to meet the Hudnuts: "The Nut King and his wife were guaranteed reactionaries. He could hear them now, spouting verbal trash across their elegant living room." The encounter is a hilarious mix of posturing, instant judgment and misunderstood comments causing palpable awkwardness, as each man sizes up the other's life - and wife.

Carkeet has fine-tuned the craft of appreciating everyday language. Comments, aloud or mumbled under breath, help define the two men and hint at how they will react to what's ahead. The plot flows easily and is full of predicaments: embezzlement, a rebellious daughter, an affair, a suspicious explosion.

I was less affected by how it all ended, however, than by how much fun Carkeet had with his characters along the way.