A trio of first novels arrives Books: Ben Neihart, Louise Redd and Mary Kay Zuravleff, all writers with Hopkins ties, deserve tender treatment.

June 13, 1996|By A SUN STAFF WRITER

In John Irving's "The World According to Garp," T. S. Garp's editor reviews his literary career -- a career that bears an uncanny resemblance to Irving's early novels -- and decides he would have been "very, very special" if he had not been cut down in his prime.

" 'Procrastination' is an original idea, and a brilliant first novel -- but it's a first novel," he tells Garp's son.

Apparently, nothing more need be said.

"First novel" is often used as a literary pejorative. Certain things are forgiven. Autobiographical touches are expected or suspected, but not required. The books, and their writers, are to be treated tenderly.

Remember that this summer as a trio of writers with ties to the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars make their debuts:

Ben Neihart, age 31

Title: "Hey Joe," Simon and Schuster, $21

Time at Hopkins: Completed his master's this year

Compared to: Robert Stone, one of his instructors at Hopkins, by Hopkins professor Stephen Dixon

"Day" job: Works nights at Hopkins' Milton S. Eisenhower Library

The story: Joe sets out for a night in New Orleans on a kind of pan-sexual quest for love and happiness, only to cross paths with Rae Schipke, the defendant in a trial involving sexual misconduct at an orphanage.

Autobiographical overtones: Although Neihart has lived in New Orleans and shares Joe's sunny outlook on life, his real-life experiences as a fund-raiser provided the background for Joe's mom, while the scandalous trial at the book's heart can be linked to Neihart's stint as a juror in the Jimmy Swaggart trial.

Reviews: "As this first novel follows Joe's adventures it becomes a touching, even soothing affirmation of the magic wisdom of youth in a mindless world." -- New York Times.

Opening lines: "Joe was newly sixteen. He had the rosy aspect, and the swagger and the skinny arms, and the bad reputation. He was a brooder, a magazine reader, a swaying dancer at mellow jazzy rap parties. He kept his hair cut short like the other smoked-out newbies at Metarie Country Day, and the only shoes he wore were black suede Pumas.

What's next: A novel set in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa., tentatively titled "Classic Rock" because Neihart listens to Baltimore's Colt-104.3 as he writes.

Louise Redd, age 28

Title: "Playing the Bones," Little, Brown, $21.95

Time at Hopkins: Attended as an undergraduate 1986-89. Later completed a master's at the University of Houston program.

Compared to: Ellen Gilchrist, Clyde Edgerton and Lee Smith

Day job: After years of cleaning houses, Redd is living on her advance money from her first book.

The story: Lacy is, in her words, "a woman, a Texan, a survivor of sexual abuse, a wayward Jesus freak, a soon-to-be-divorced, not-very-hirable Ph.D, a redhead, an ex-teacher with a misdemeanor conviction on my record someone who alternates between lying and battering people with the truth, someone who has hurt a good man, deeply, and can't do a damn thing about it." Luckily, she has a therapist, albeit a graduate student given to turbans.

Autobiographical overtones: Few and far between. "Lacy is braver than I am. If I wrote about myself, it would be a little boring."

Reviews: "Peppy In this spirited, if uneven, first novel, Lacy has almost managed to vanquish her demons." -- Entertainment Weekly

Opening line: "On my list of One Hundred Things I want Out of Life, hearing a certain man say 'hey my baby' is Number 2."

What's next: A novel set in Austin, Texas, Redd's current home.

Mary Kay Zuravleff, age 36

Title: "The Frequency of Souls," Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23

At Hopkins: Graduated in '82 from the master's program

Compared to: Anne Tyler, James Thurber and John Irving

Day job: Editor at the Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian.

The story: George, an engineer who designs refrigerators, is drawn to his new colleague, Niagara Spense, who has some admittedly unorthodox ideas about communing with the dead through their "audible fossils."

Autobiographical overtones: Born into a family of engineers, Zuravleff started at Rice University in Houston with an electrical engineering major and had summer jobs in the engineering field. But those experiences only solidified her desire to be a writer.

Sample review: "Mary Kay Zuravleff can only be admired for making this momentous topic witty and suitably ironic." The Times of London.

Opening lines: "Ever since he had built his first radio set from xTC glass tubes and a spool of lead, George Mahoney remained convinced that the universe was soldered together with logic."

What's next: A novel set in D.C. that considers how we decide certain things are valuable.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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