Novels of March - triumph, heroes

March 16, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,special to the sun

As the great 19th century novelists knew, novels without settings are crippled, amputated things. In the best novels of March, setting afflicts characters even as it provides them with the means of transcendence.

A sublime novel will appear in March and that is "Fugitive Pieces" by Canadian poet Anne Michaels (Knopf, 294 pages, $23). This first novel at once seizes an important place among the literature of the Holocaust. Its hero Jakob Beer is the sole survivor in his family; his travail is heartbreaking, illuminating, and exquisitely rendered.

In a Polish village Jakob runs for his life only to be rescued by a Greek archaeologist-geographer-poet who hides him for the duration. The setting is the aftermath of the Holocaust in the heart of the survivor. The memory of his sister Bella echoes through Jakob's life. "I grasped the two syllables closest to me," he whispers to her in a lifelong letter, "and replaced my heartbeat with your name."

A second part of this brilliant work is narrated by one of Jakob's admirers, after his death. He is the son of Holocaust survivors and that experience shapes his life as he grows up in "a hiding place rotted out by grief."

"Fugitive Pieces" touches nerve; it touches bone. It's about the glories of learning, biography, grief, memory, history, love, silence and yearning. It's nothing short of a triumph.

After reading Po Bronson's "The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest" (Random House, 303 pages, $23), you'll never feel the same about your computer again. From the inside this "Silicon Valley Novel" reveals the sham of that hacker's paradise. Original and sparkling, it reveals how the computer industry cons us into believing we need faster and more complex computers. Bronson thought of calling his book "Not Gates."

This is a book for anyone who has a computer, or who wants to know about computers, and it will cure that itch to upgrade. And bravo! to someone with the knowhow to put Bill Gates in his place.

Frederick Busch in "Girls" (Harmony Book, Crown, 288 pages, $23) limns his 18th work of fiction, a literary thriller, in a post-Vietnam America of senseless violence and moral emptiness. On the wintry tundra of a small college campus, our hero, a Vietnam vet, is a campus cop. Murdered young women are found in the folds of leaves. Having witnessed the horrors of Vietnam, he now discovers the horrors of home: "Everyone was crying for help."

Jack struggles to keep alive not only the girls on campus, but his own shattered marriage. He finds "we all needed more than we were bringing to the situation." The wintry landscape freezes your heart even as Jack anaesthetizes himself against feeling. A superb dog offers unsentimentally a role model for survival. Busch is a master and those who don't know his name should.

Robert McCrum's fifth novel, "Suspicion" (W. W. Norton & Co., 256 pages, $23), is a psychological thriller as chilling in its politics as in the subterranean horror of its sibling rivalry. The narrator resides in a foxhole of an English village now invaded by his older brother, an expatriate Communist returned from East Germany.

Amid echoes of Jane Austen (the town is called Mansfield, they picnic on Box Hill), we meet "zealots without a cause." Not only for the brother but for our "hero" as well, "history was almost a member of the family." This novel is spare and clean, a fitting environment for our journey through repressed murderous impulses, and a yarn for our time. And, yes, that gun in the first act does go off in the third.

For a delightful American comedy of manners, try "When The Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth" by Fernanda Eberstadt (Knopf, 395 pages, $25), a juicy comedy of manners about patrons of the arts and the foundations through which they leech onto the young and the talented. Our anti-heroine, rich Mrs. Gebler, "forked out fifty thousand dollars for a piece that spontaneously combusted." Then she meets Isaac, the real thing.

Eberstadt writes in a folksy, chatty, iconoclastic prose that will keep you reading. She turns serious as her visionary, Blakean artist realizes he cannot survive under the burden of his lover-patron's help. There's nothing so salutary or welcome as a satire on the spirit of our times.

Each in its own way, these five novels are powerful blows against complacency. "Fugitive Pieces," however, is in a class by itself.

Joan Mellen's most recent book is the dual biography "Hellma and Hammett." She has written 13 books, including one novel and several biographies. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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