November's fiction: a richness of novels

November 10, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

America's richness of literary culture is brillantly demonstrated in the cornucopia of accomplished fiction being published this autumn. Jewels of the harvest, any one would be a treasure at the toe of a Christmas stocking.

Allegra Goodman's "The Family Markowitz," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 262 pages, $22), a series of stories about one Jewish family, offers a startingly fresh approach to a subject seemingly exhausted by Philip Roth. But no, here come the Markowitzes, a clan charming, exasperating, limited, profound, and surprising, not least the matriarch Rose.

Everyone is uneasy; everyone disappoints everyone else and it's hilarious. Goodman offers up dialogue with surgical precision. More than once you'll laugh out loud. The religious zealots of the younger generation are given a salutary brush with Goodman's wise satiric pen. Don't miss "Mosquitoes," featuring academic Middle East expert son Ed at an ecumenical conference. And what would a book about a Jewish family be without a wedding at the end!

***

No less exhilarating is "God's Country Club" by Gail Donohue Storey (Persea Books, 229 pages, $22.95). The setting is Texas where Colleen moves in with Dr. Gabriel at his condo. "We've been raised with three categories of fears," she tells us, "not getting married, nuclear holocaust, and the rapist." But it isn't all moon, June and sex. The homeless turn up in the person of Chance, who tells Colleen, "the human heart is broke." A life devoid of care for others is no life at all.

This book is witty, lively, funny. We adore that self-examining first person narrator Colleen, who, with considerable trepidation, is moving into a social class to which she is not accustomed.

***

Marge Piercy presents her 13th novel, "City Of Darkness, City Of Light," (Fawcett Columbine, 479 pages, $25). The subject is the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of three women and three men. Some we've heard of (Danton, Robespierre), others not. Fiction thrives as biography; we meet Robespierre as a penniless schoolboy admirer of Rousseau and Claire as an itinerant actress with a hunger "to understand the world, to know why things were as they were, how they got that way." People starve, assemble, shout, take up arms, women every bit as much as men.

"City of Darkness, City of Light" is a passion play of the downfall of feudalism: Robespierre walks through the streets genuinely embarrassed by the crude replicas of himself on sale. Tom Paine brings the news that the king has decamped; characters are aware of themselves as "actors in history," as characters in fiction should be.

Robespierre goes to the guillotine wishing for time "to figure out exactly what he had done wrong," but certain "there would be other revolutionaries." Read this book to discover what it was like to live through the years of the French Revolution, and blessed be the woman novelist working on a broad canvas, with ambitions of this sublime range.

***

"The River Beyond The World" by Janet Peery (Picador, 286 pages, $24) a National Book Award finalist, a nomination more richly deserved by Marge Piercy, explores the relationship between an illiterate illegal alien from Mexico and the woman she serves all her life as a maid. Earnest in tone, fashionable in the New Age anthropological mysticism of its early chapters set in Mexico (skip these), this is an unsentimental look at the fates of two women. Luisa is poor but rich in integrity. Eddie, lucky to be white, takes decades to transcend the ugly racism of her origins. "The River Beyond The World" is a drama of the confluence of race and class, with impressive power.

***

Choose Andre' Brink's new novel, "Imaginings of Sand" (Harcourt Brace, 349 pages, $24) for this month's most extraordinary voyage to a foreign land. In Brink's native South Africa uneasy are the white settlers confronting the apocalyptic moment of Nelson Mandela's election. Brink's characters are white and black. Some, like Jonny, who is rescued by the African National Congress, have everything to gain. For Casper, a settler turned vigilante, a democratic South Africa spells doomsday; his wife stocks up on toilet paper and dog food, dreading the day the blacks will take over. The richest novelistic subject is the chaos of transitional moments in history when people live most fully. Having rejected her anguished homeland, Brink's heroine Kristien returns to discover her past and her future. Politics and history gracefully meet magical realism in "Imaginings of Sand," an exquisite book.

This season reveals that fiction is king indeed. May their publishers proudly promote and honor these fine books and may readers this holiday look beyond the Stephen Kings, the John Grishams, the Tom Clancys and their clones, for the gold in these hills.

Joan Mellen teaches creative writng at Temple University. She has written 13 books, including one novel, "Natural Tendencies." Her most recent book is the dual biography,"Hellman and Hammett."

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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