John Gardner once described fiction as a "huge thought made up of concrete details." In the best fiction, he explained, something magical seems to occur. That huge thought becomes a dream in the reader's mind.
The authors of "Salaryman," "Ricochet River" and "Dreaming in Cuban" try -- with varying degrees of success -- to create the fictional dream out of their own huge thoughts. They have written first novels that tell stories about connecting and coming of age. They use dreams to tell those stories.
Author Meg Pei brings Jun Shimada, the protagonist of "Salaryman" (Viking, 296 pages, $21), to New York to work as part of Yamamoto America, a Japanese electronics corporation. Shimada, a bright college graduate, is the son of a poet and is married to a one-time art student. Both his wife and his best friend, Keiji, who is an artist, are Bohemians and represent a 1960s' anti-materialism. The book, though, is set in the late 1980s. Trying to fit into the corporate structure, Shimada denies the spiritual side of himself and puts himself in conflict with those who mean the most to him.
A dream suggests his conflict: Shimada was young, wearing his school uniform. Sick and waiting for his mother, he sat on a bench in the school hallway. She began to call him; her words seemed to come from far away. He knew it was his mother and could almost see her smiling, with her round, pleasant face and her pointy front tooth.
But when he tried to go to her, he found he could not walk: "The speckled floor was slippery with wax." He fell once, twice; his hands slipped, and he fell onto his chin -- "The wax accumulated like butter." His mother insisted that he stand up. Yet he was unable to do so.
Shimada muddles through adulthood in a drunken angst. He loses his wife, his children, his friend and takes up with Gina, a high-minded prostitute. The climax of the story
occurs when Gina tells Shimada to put his life in order. The rest of this somewhat contrived but sensitively written book has Shimada attempting to do that.
Jesse Howl, an 18-year-old Indian and the protagonist of Robin Cody's "Ricochet River" (Knopf, 279 pages, $20), also tries to put his life in order. Dreams play a major part in that order.
When he was small, Jesse dreamed that he had been playing outside; he was crawling around in the grass, when his uncle backed over him in his pickup truck. Although Jesse felt no pain, he knew that he had died. Jesse's mother, too, has symbolic dreams. They warn her of Jesse's doom.
So she brings him to the small logging town of Calamus in Oregon, where this story is set. The time is the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jesse is to attend public school and to become part of the white man's world. At first, Jesse not only fits in, he excels. He's a natural athlete, fisherman and hunter. He and Wade Curran, who narrates this story, become close friends.
Their relationship brings to mind John Knowles' "A Separate Peace." Each book focuses on the friendship between two boys on the brink of manhood. Each tells of a war between cultures, with the characters mere pawns of the war. Each suggests that the war in a man's heart causes the larger wars. In Mr. Knowles' book, however, the writing is vivid and evocative. Mr. Cody's book is somewhat flat.
The writing in Cristina Garcia's "Dreaming in Cuban" (Knopf, 229 pages, $20) is anything but flat. Ms. Garcia, who has worked as a correspondent for Time, writes in a style that seems magically alive. There's even a kind of dream-like quality to the prose: "I have this image of Abuela Celia underwater, standing on a reef with tiny chrome fish darting by her face like flashes of light. . . . She calls to me, but I can't hear her. Is she talking to me from her dreams?"
The story focuses on four women: Celia, the aging matriarch; Felicia and Lourdes, her two middle-aged daughters, and Pilar, Lourdes' 24-year-old daughter. Jorge, the patriarch; has recently died. The story begins in the late 1970s, with the action in Havana and New York.
But the action occurs mostly in the minds of these four women as they narrate sections of the novel. Each "is as nervous as a magnetic field, attracting small disturbances." Their personalities suggest a sub-theme exploring the relationship between creativity and sanity. Pilar is the sensitive artist trying to find herself. Celia and Lourdes are high-strung, given to reading and reciting poetry. Felicia is too highly strung and insane.
In her youth, Celia had an unhappy love affair; brokenhearted, she writes but does not send love letters to the man who left her. Felicia, the middle daughter, lives in Havana, near her mother. Abused by her husband, she practices black magic. Lourdes, the oldest daughter, has moved to New York with her husband and daughter. There in Brooklyn, she opens a bakery and tries to become assimilated. She could be successful if not for her dead father and her daughter, Pilar.
The climax of the story occurs as Lourdes and Pilar return to
Cuba in 1980. Pilar reconnects with her grandmother and with her mother country; she paints her grandmother's portrait, realizing the power of love made into art.
As the story ends, Pilar, whose life seems so similar to Ms. Garcia's life and whose many imaginings have held this story together, begins dreaming in Spanish. These dreams will
continue her family's history, she explains. They will keep that history "from being absorbed quietly by the earth, with no more meaning than falling leaves on an autumn day." These dreams -- and here she suggests the novel's effect -- make her feel as if there's a magic working its way through her veins.
Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.