Even the weather can set off Hoffman's characters

May 03, 1992|By Joan Mooney

TURTLE MOON.

Alice Hoffman.

Putnam.

256 pages. $21.95. The extraordinary events of Alice Hoffman's books can be set off by something as simple as the weather. The author of "Turtle Moon" understands that extreme heat and humidity can make people do things they would never ordinarily do -- something to which anyone who has lived through a summer in Baltimore can attest.

The novel is set in the small town of Verity, the most humid spot in Eastern Florida. But it's more than that. People who live in Verity realize "something is wrong with the month of May. It isn't the humidity, or even the heat, which is so fierce and sudden it can make grown men cry. Every May, when the sea turtles begin their migration across West Main Street, mistaking the glow of streetlights for the moon, people go a little bit crazy." This is vintage Alice Hoffman: the mixture of mundane and bizarre, and life thrown out of kilter because nature is thwarted by the work of men.

One more unusual fact about Verity further sets the tone: Because of the attraction of low rents and wild hibiscus, there are more divorced women from New York in Verity than anywhere else in Florida. More often than not, their children are homesick for the cool green lawns of home.

The one who hates Verity most of all is 12-year-old Keith Rosen, often referred to as "the meanest boy in Verity." "He was so mean he could cut his own finger with a serrated steak knife and not flinch," Ms. Hoffman writes. What makes Keith unhappy is not his parents' divorce, but the fact that no one asked him whether he wanted to live with his mother or father.

He has never gotten along with his mother, and now here he is in a boring, unbearably hot town, frequently skipping school, stealing money from his classmates' lockers, smoking, and drinking beer and Kahlua.

His mother, Lucy, was married to Evan for nearly 20 years, living in a large house in Great Neck, N.Y., before they realized all they had in common was Keith. Less than a year later, she and Keith are living in a condo in Verity, and she is writing obituaries for the Verity Sun Herald. She is at her wits' end wondering what to do about Keith.

Then a neighbor in their condo is murdered, and her baby daughter and Keith disappear, all on the same night in early May. Lucy knew the dead woman only enough to realize that she was a devoted mother and that they had gone to the same hairdresser back in Great Neck.

But we know how Bethany (known as Karen in Florida) drove with her baby in the family Saab in the pouring rain to Wilmington, left the car with the keys in it by the Greyhound station, and fled her uncaring husband and his grasping, rich parents.

In the middle of this comes Julian Cash, a Verity native who handles trained dogs for the town police. As he sits watching Keith play hooky at the Burger King, we learn that 20 years ago this May, when he was 17, he crashed his car into the gumbo-limbo tree on the edge of the parking lot, and he still avoids the spot.

Julian is a man of few words. One way he can tell this May is even crazier than others is that he finds himself speaking as many as three sentences in a row. As events get more out of his normal ken -- he leaves Florida for the first time, even gets on a plane, sits at a table with Chinese food (but doesn't actually eat it) -- Julian keeps thinking something is about to snap, and it might be himself.

In the four Hoffman novels I have read, Julian is the only grown male character who is really developed. His upbringing by a foster mother out in the woods, the story of his mother running through the woods covering her just-delivered baby with her dress so he is not bitten by mosquitoes -- these details create a fairy-tale quality that makes a good counterbalance to his toughness.

One could go on trying to answer the question: Why are Ms. Hoffman's novels so good? Each one is different, except for her trademark atmosphere of mystery and things being slightly out of the ordinary. Perhaps that "slightly" is the key. Writing fantasy is one thing, but showing the magic that lies below the surface of everyday life is just what we hope for in a satisfying novel, and that's what Ms. Hoffman gives us every time.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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