First novels: one focused, one fuzzy

January 09, 1994|By Diane Scharper

Title: "Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery"

Author: John Gregory Brown

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 244 pages, $19.95

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Title: "The Circus of the Earth and the Air"

Author: Brooke Stevens

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Length, price: 384 pages, $23.95 "We make sense of the world, some philosopher once said, only through its rearrangement, through a constant shift in perspective coupled with a slight movement of this or that. . . . In that manner . . . the truth becomes apparent."

The words belong to Meredith Eagen, protagonist of "Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery," one of two first novels written by recent graduates of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars that were published this month. Meredith explains how she has made sense of regret. Simultaneously, she suggests the structure of many novels, including this one.

John Gregory Brown, winner of the 1993 Lyndhurst Prize for Fiction and a resident of Columbia, tells an absorbing story about the effects of racism. The story, told as a flashback and through the shifting perspective of several points of view, is set in the 1960s in the South.

On Nov. 7, 1965, 12-year-old Meredith had been sitting in the car beside her father. She heard him whisper "Jesus Christ" over and over, not in prayer, she thought, but in the way you would whisper someone's name when you wanted him to see something before it disappeared. Meredith looked up to see 60 feet of a 24-mile bridge disappearing into Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain.

The bridge's collapse symbolizes the collapse of a way of life for Meredith, her father and her twin brother, Lowell. They had left their stepmother, Catherine, in New Orleans. They planned to travel to their father's boyhood home in Mandeville, La. But their plans were changed.

Meredith and Lowell spend their growing-up years in the rundown building that holds their father's medical office. They are separated from a stepmother they love, separated from their past and separated, in a sense, from their very selves. The reason behind that separation is the point of the story.

In several letters, Meredith learns that her grandmother, Mollie Moore, was a light-skinned black woman. After Mollie married Meredith's white grandfather, she lived in the South, where she bore a son.

That son would later father Meredith. He would also torment himself about his mixed racial heritage. His suffering helps to set the tone of this novel, which, as Meredith explains, is one of regret.

"Regret is always, I've decided, a long and complicated story, as this one is," she says. "While I now realize that my own regret begins not on that morning, November 7, 1965, but much earlier, long before I was born, I will begin with that morning nevertheless and slip, as memory slips, both forward and back."

She does so with grace.

Less graceful is "The Circus of the Earth and the Air." Brooke Stevens has also written a long and complicated story, and this one, like Mr. Brown's, advances by shifts of time and perspective. But these shifts are not as smooth, and the focus of the novel is never quite clear.

Alex Barton, the protagonist, has been spending a quiet week on an island with his wife, Iris. The book opens as he watches her swimming in the calm, blue-green sea -- most things in this story are either blue or white. She swims steadily toward three gulls, her white, naked body kicking up white foam behind her.

A white horse emerges from that foam in a few minutes. The horse performs in a circus that Alex and Iris attend. Since they do not have the price of admission, Iris pays for her ticket by helping a performer named Father Fish as he does his disappearing act.

Either because she has been kidnapped or because something has gone wrong, Iris disappears permanently. The rest of the book tells how Alex, helped by a policeman named Marlin, tries to find Iris. This is difficult since the circus also disappears.

In fact, several characters suggest the circus is a hallucination that Alex experiences to help him bear the disappearance, possibly the death, of his wife. The circus could also be the last thoughts that Alex has just before his own drowning. It could even be a dream or the memory of a dream.

The plot goes in many different directions. It takes Alex back to New York; back to the island of Verre; back to the sleepy town of Towson situated on Verre; back to his childhood; back to the childhood of someone who may be his father, while at the same time being his wife's -- or deceased wife's -- father.

There is also much wordplay and color/name symbolism in this story in which nothing is what it seems. When Alex returns to Verre, he meets Evelyn, who reminds him of Iris. Evelyn, too, is reminded of her boyfriend, Peter Michelman, whenever she sees Alex.

Peter and Alex join a Gestapo-like army guarding various members of a circus. These might be members of the same circus that Iris belonged to, or they might not. Whether this circus is connected with Iris, who is somehow connected with Alex's past, is -- like so many events in this story -- not adequately explained.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

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