February novels: location, location

February 16, 1997|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,special to the sun

February's novels are remarkable for a stunning variety of settings, from the rural South to Paris and St. Petersburg, from inner-city Los Angeles to cyberspace and beyond.

Brian Keith Jackson, a first-time novelist, debuts this month with "The View From Here" (Pocket, 229 pages, $22), a black family drama set in a small town in Mississippi. Anna Anderson Thomas, the mother of five boys, finds herself pregnant again just as her husband is laid off at the local lumber mill.

To Anna's horror, her husband vows to give the baby to his childless sister, the harsh wife of a minister. Heartfelt about the strength of poor black country women and the weakness of the men who oppress them, this is a sentimental story, yet far more touching than Alice Walker's novels on the same theme.

Dan Franck's "My Russian Love" (Doubleday, 192 pages, $18.95), superbly translated by Jon Rothschild, is as sentimental as Jackson's, but in a cool, urbane manner that is uniquely French. A Parisian filmmaker is haunted by his early romance with a girl from Leningrad; the affair had ended when she returned to the U.S.S.R. to be near her father, who was arrested for anti-Soviet activities.

As political affiliations shift and Leningrad again becomes St. Petersburg, the filmmaker back in France never forgets his love until their sad reunion years later. Moody and cinematic - Franck is also a screenwriter - this lovely, bittersweet novel needs only some dramatic backdrops and a soundtrack of tinkly piano music to be transformed into a quintessentially French movie.

The quirky mind of Douglas Antrim travels beyond cyberspace with "The Hundred Brothers" (Crown, 208 pages, $20), the second in a trio of self-consciously oddball creations that borrow their sensibility from Pinter, Pynchon, Borges and Beckett. Quick to distinguish itself from the average novel, the book launches into a first sentence no less than three pages long: it's a list of narrator Doug's 99 brothers and their various professions, and it's very funny in a subversive kind of way.

What Antrim manages to do with this catalog of siblings is to sabotage the process in which a reader struggles to get situated in a work of fiction, identifying characters and their relation to one another. It's impossible, of course, to do that with this absurdly large crowd, and that's the joke; it's also pretty much all there is to the book.

These hundred brothers gather in the vast library of their ancestral mansion to search for the urn containing their father's ashes. They never find it, never progress beyond cocktails and a farcically chaotic dinner - but that's part of the joke also: The timelessness and plotlessness here mock ordinary novelistic conventions. Antrim's sentences are graceful and muscular, and his theme is grad-school-exercise clever. He's managed to write a novel that unravels itself as it goes.

Nina Revoyr's debut, "The Necessary Hunger" (Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $23), is as grittily realistic as Antrim's is other-worldly. Set in a gang-and-graffiti-infested section of Los Angeles, the story follows two girl basketball stars through their senior year of high school. In her acknowledgments the author confesses a debt to the documentary film "Hoop Dreams," yet her novel isn't quite as effective. Part of the problem is a too-earnest approach to teenage turmoil. The girls, a lesbian Japanese-American with a crush on a lesbian African-American, act as if they had invented homosexuality, and when the divorced father of one miraculously falls in love with the divorced mother of the other, well, you can imagine the opera of adolescent emotions when the two households combine.

When Revoyr isn't ruminating on power struggles in young lesbian love, she's offering descriptions of every layup of every basketball game in the girls' championship season. And yet the pressure from recruiting college coaches on these inner-city girls is movingly described, as is the decay of the inner city itself. A good dose of critical distance may be all this promising author needs to make her next book a winner.

East or west, the novel, in all its variety of places and themes, is alive and thriving this winter.

Donna Rifkind writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Time Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Criterion, for which she used to be assistant managing editor.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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