Novels of October: Gothic, grisly, goofy

October 26, 1997|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,special to the sun

For the neighborhood goblin whose spirit is not appeased by mere candy, Anne Rice's "Violin" (Knopf. 289 pages. $25.95) might be a tasty treat.

Like most of her novels, it's a passionate mixture of earthly fears and supernatural terrors, with lots of blood and darkness spread round the edges. The new ingredient this time is a heavy dose of classical gas - the ghosts of Beethoven and Paganini mingle with lesser known shades to titillate the soul of an aspiring young musician named Triana.

For goblins with a high IQ, however, Rice's novel may prove more of a trick than a treat. The tortuous purple prose ("Broken hearts do best forever beating upon the wintry windowpane") and the lame philosophy ("Grief is wise. Grief does not cry") are enough to disturb any sensitive mind. It is at least comforting to know that "Violin" is one of Rice's shorter works. How anyone beyond the age of 16 could endure more than 300 pages of such gothic goofiness is a mystery to me.

A slightly more satisfying ghost story can be found in Rober Girardi's "Vaporetto 13" (Delacorte. 196 pages. $19.95). A high-finance yuppie whiz kid named Jack Squire goes to Venice on business and falls in love with a strange woman "cloaked in the sadness of centuries." Naturally, he is haunted by her fragile beauty (aren't all ghostly women fragile beauties?); and his subsequent pursuit of this elusive figure produces an often suspenseful, but rarely compelling, story. The genuinely spooky moments are undermined by travelogue descriptions of Venice and stiff dialogue that often reads like something overheard at the office water cooler: "Reuters - that's the news service - sends an electronic message every time something happens that might affect the exchange rates."

For a truly engaging novel - one that may help you block out al thoughts of this silly season -try Jane Urquhart's "The Underpainter" (Viking. 340 pages. $23.95). A highly regarded Canadian author who has written three previous works of fiction, Urquhart tells the story of Austin Fraser, a minimalist painter whose rich and adventurous life covers most of the century. Like her subject, Urquhart loves to underpaint, using a spare but beautiful prose style to evoke whole worlds of feeling. From beginning to end, her novel is entrancing, effortlessly moving us from France during the First World War to the backwaters of Ontario and the racy glamour of Manhattan in the 1920s.

The painter's romance with a model he meets in Ontario is one of the highlights of this poignant tale. Urquhart captures perfectly the intensity of this love affair, and puts it in a revealing light beside the artist's even more passionate devotion to his art. "What I wanted from life was just a good view, wasn't it?" her

hero asks, and then adds: "A paintable view, a perfectly composed view and, now and then, a perfect figure in a perfect landscape." As these words suggest, Urquhart's work shares a similar purpose, and in "The Underpainter" she has composed a perfectly lovely view of one man's life and art.

Caleb Carr takes a much different look at the past in his powerfu tale of "unnatural" violence in late 19th-century New York, "The Angel of Darkness" (Random House. 560 pages. $25.95). Fans of Carr's 1994 best seller "The Alienist" will warm immediately to his new book, which features some of the same characters, including the alienist himself, Dr. Kreizler. The concept is that old New York was just as crime-ridden, corrupt and generally screwed up as the current metropolis. Clever crime-fighter Dr. Kreizler is the precursor of the modern FBI profiler who tracks down serial killers in the bowels of the urban jungle.

Carr's grasp of the historical details of his period is impressive, and the rapid pace of his narrative sweeps readers through hundreds of pages without any strain. The problem is that, in the end, the author is so caught up in the surface events of his story that it rarely rises above the level of a diverting costume drama. Carr is a good writer and is capable of more subtle, and more profound, work than this. Although the popular success of his books must delight him, it would be tragic if such a talented writer became stuck in the mill of pulp fiction, writing sequel after sequel.

And, finally, October also brings us a novel for people whos love of the absurd knows no bounds. Mark Leyner's "The Tetherballs of Bougainville" (Harmony Books. 208 pages. $21) is a manic romp that begins as a comic tale set in an execution chamber and ends as an experiment in screenwriting conducted by an oversexed juvenile delinquent who wants to call his movie "The Vivisection of Mighty Mouse, Jr." None of it makes much sense, but it may be good for a few laughs after a long day of watching even stranger stories on the cable news channels.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and i working on a book about Mark Twain. He writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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