Some April novels: Milton, love, evil

April 20, 1997|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Good fiction reveals the truths we cannot bear to share in public. It shows us how the world really operates when no one is supposed to be watching. Inside this "buried life," as Matthew Arnold called it, minds and hearts are stripped of their false layers, allowing us "to know/ Whence our lives come and where they go." Every good novel is an excursion to this secret territory.

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Both as a biographer and a novelist, Peter Ackroyd has been an intrepid explorer of the buried life, uncovering the hidden selves of such complex characters as William Blake, Charles Dickens, and T.S. Eliot.

In his magical novel "Milton in America," (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 307 pages, $22.95) he takes us inside the mind of the great Puritan poet by constructing an elaborate imaginary history. What if John Milton had fled the restoration of the profane monarchy in England? And what if his final place of refuge had been Puritan New England? From this plausible scenario, Ackroyd weaves an exhilarating tale of a mature genius struggling to rediscover his talents in a raw and confused new land. It is a bold and dazzling performance by one of the best and most prolific writers in Britain today.

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In "Joy School" (Random House, 208 pages, $19) Elizabeth Berg, a current inhabitant of the New England landscape so powerfully imagined by Ackroyd, takes us into the charmingly precocious mind of a young girl in love for the first time. Dreamy and fragile, Berg's heroine is so convincingly brought to life that we feel her joys and sorrows as though they were our own. Young Katie is introduced to love by an older man whose life she can never fully share, and the resulting complications force her to confront hard realities often ignored by others her age.

In the intimate courses of life's "joy school," she finds that the deepest emotions of love are tempered by heartaches.

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Mary Wesley writes about love with the subtlety of a writer whose vision of life has slowly matured to a ripe glow. Unpublished as a novelist until she was 70, Wesley has quickly made up for lost time by bringing out 9 novels in the last 10 years. If you have not yet discovered her witty, ruthlessly accurate portraits of middle-class England, pick up a copy of her new novel "Part of the Furniture" (Viking, 256 pages, $22.95). It is the story of an unconventional love affair on an isolated English farm during the blitz. Among the many pleasures of the story are its slightly old-fashioned language and its arcane references to wartime culture, all of which help to give it an authentic flavor that is both bewildering and beguiling.

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Tough-guy crime novelist Robert B. Parker is no stranger to the buried life. Over the years his admirable private-eye hero, Spenser, has revealed intriguing depths of sensitivity and literary appreciation.

The latest Spenser mystery, "Small Vices" (Putnam, 320 pages, $21.95), contains witty references to T.S. Eliot, and even makes a few indirect attacks on the haughty academic world that tends to look down at "popular entertainers" such as Parker. Their snobbery is their loss. Parker is a master of his craft, and "Small Vices" is a thoroughly first-rate piece of work - entertaining, to be sure, but also brilliantly imagined and intellectually stimulating.

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The same can be said of Chris Petit's splendidly terrifying peek inside the violent world of Northern Ireland. "The Psalm Killer" (Knopf, 432 pages, $25) is the best and most literate thriller to tackle the thorny question of sectarian fighting in that seemingly eternal Irish conflict.

A filmmaker and critic in London, Petit has carefully studied the dark side of the struggle and has written a novel that perfectly captures the surreal quality of a land almost lost beyond hope in pointless bloodbaths. Through the sad but knowledgeable eyes of Petit's protagonist, Belfast Chief Inspector Cross, we see a place so corrupted by violence that killing has become an end in itself, a crime without motive or reason. In his search for one lone killer, Inspector Cross discovers a world rapidly breeding more such killers, though politics and religion have tragically obscured the real nature of the growing evil.

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In "Kill Kill Faster Faster" (Crown, 212 pages, $22) Joel Rose may have hoped to cast a new light on mindless violence, but he succeeds only in writing a stupendously mindless book. This is the one stinker in April that deserves special condemnation. There are no hidden depths or subtle shades here. It is the kind of trendy celebration of urban crime that appeals to jaded publishers isolated in their fortress skyscrapers.

Somehow it has become hip to publish novels that are miserably short on style and art, but overflowing with in-your-face, street-stupid brutality. "Kill Kill Faster Faster" die die soon soon.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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