Some novels of April: Lessing, Tilghman

April 21, 1996|By ANITA FINKEL | ANITA FINKEL,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Doris Lessing's powerful "Love, Again" (HarperCollins. 352 pages. $24) is an anti-romance for those distrustful of romances.

Sarah Durham, the 65-year-old "sensible woman" at the heart of the story, is proud of not having been in love for 20 years.

But her serenity is shattered when, sparked by the flirting of a seductive 26-year-old actor, producer Sarah falls hopelessly in love and realizes "I ... am in exactly the same situation as the innumerable people of the world who are ugly, deformed, or crippled, or have horrible skin disorders... No matter how unfeeling or callous one is when young, everyone, but everyone, will learn what it is to be in a desert of deprivation."

Sarah's progress - moving past rejection and bitter truths back to stability and sanity - is shown as a real success story. And Ms. Lessing's nerve in painting, so coolly and precisely, the interior landscape of an aging woman - who finds her awakened emotions ultimately enrich her other mental and cultural resources - makes "Love, Again" a courageous, stimulating novel.

***

Michelle Chalfoun's "Roustabout" (HarperCollins. 224 pages. $22.) is also intellectually rewarding, a work of literary fiction set in a milieu - "Fabrizio's Circus Fantastico" - where pulp would be expected.

Ms. Chalfoun's heroine, Mat, for Matilda, has a shocking enough background: Abandoned by her mother and promptly raped by her stepfather, she exists on the fringes of grungy, semi-literate truckers and big-top riggers.

But her efforts to escape her harsh reality through sex and drugs are never glamorized. Though beaten down by lovers, lectured by worn, defeated women, and frightened by the suffering of fallen tightrope walkers and trapped animals, Mat retains stirrings of conscience, of feelings for others. There's never a doubt that if Mat can make it out of the circus and into the wider, healthier, more productive world, she'll flourish there.

"Roustabout" is strong and its scenes of suffering and cruelty are so sharply drawn they can be horrifying. But Mat's unshakable sense of self, the integrity of all victims who come through fire to the other side, makes the anguish inspiring.

***

Set in Baltimore and the icy Eastern Shore of Maryland just before World War II, Christopher Tilghman's "Mason's Retreat" (Random House. 274 pages. $22) expresses a commitment to quality and refinement.

A father is excluded from the affectionate devotion of a mother and adolescent son with tragic results, but despite the potential for exploitation, Mr. Tilghman eschews clich and stereotype. Especially well-drawn is the mother, Edith, who continues an adulterous relationship in an attempt to protect her son and is shattered by her failure.

Told by an adult looking back on his childhood, refusing to blame or judge, "Mason's Retreat" preserves its double perspective with beautiful control. And Mr. Tilghman's care and craftsmanship pay off at the end, which is moving to the point of tears.

***

In their teen-age years, boys may channel their youthful drives in a variety of directions, from Star Trek to the priesthood. Alan Isler must have belonged to the large group for whom the young female, and her undergarments, prove the focus of adolescent attention - his new "Kraven Images" (Bridge Works Publishing Co. 264 pages. $21.95) is preoccupied with frilly undergarments.

The story of Nicholas Kraven, an English professor at "Mosholu" College in New York City, is a tale of panties. "Antonia Anstruther," a student, we learn on page 13 "wore no panties." Others wear them and are recounted.

Given that so many novels are drearily lugubrious, the comic impulse in "Kraven Images" is refreshing. But the misogyny, preposterous coincidences and unresolved narrative are likely to exhaust even those drawn to the Panty Parade.

***

Readers in search of academic satire may think they have found it in Max Childers' "Congregation of the Dead" (Wyrick & Co. 282 pages. $21.95), which opens with another disaffected English professor mocking his narrow-minded colleagues at "Altgeld College."

But once "never-to-be-tenured assistant professor" Walter throws over his job for a family legacy in North Carolina, the book develops into an elegiac examination of loss. Endearingly ineffectual Walter can only watch as the fortune amassed by his late father is detached and pocketed by a cupcake in a tube-top.

Walter is an Everyman, trying to hang on to a shred of identity as the situations that engulf him grow more and more comically surreal. Initially merely witty and rather cold, "Congregation of the Dead" becomes moving and surprising as it progresses, achieving a tone that is nostalgic, poetic and unmistakably Southern.

Anita Finkel is an editor at Collier's Encyclopedia and has a doctorate in English literature from the University of California. She previously edited and published New Dance Review and worked for Ballet News, Barron's and Charles Scribner's Sons.

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