November novels: Bears, Brits, India

November 09, 1997|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Among the books for which to be thankful this November is Rick Bass' newest work, "The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness" (Houghton Mifflin, 189 pages, $23). For anyone unfamiliar with this Montana author's 11 books, his latest, a collection of three novellas, makes a grand introduction. In the first tale, "The Myths of Bears," a Yukon trapper in the early part of this century stalks his ultimate prey: his own runaway wife. "Where the Sea Used to Be" follows a young Alabama geologist as he drills for oil on land that was once a vast prehistoric sea. And in the title novella, a female narrator looks back elegiacally to her childhood spent on the enormous ranch in west Texas where her family has lived for generations.

What surrounds all three tales is land - huge, teeming American land, in which mankind is merely one species among a multitude. Bass has a naturalist's appreciation for the predatory habits of both men and beasts, with a special interest in human cruelty. Above all, it's his language that glistens here, vivid and visceral, brutal and elegant, with a mineral purity.

***

A continent away in both geography and mood, Tom Sharpe's 13th novel, "The Midden" (The Overlook Press, 244 pages, $23.95), is a sendup of British society from an author whose comic sensibility has been compared with the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Benny Hill and Monty Python. Sharpe's new novel relates the misfortunes of Timothy Bright, the dimwitted scion of an esteemed English family.

A series of idiotic mishaps culminates in a grotesque tableau featuring corpses a-flying and houses aflame.

Nobody ridicules the wretchedness of a true loser more enthusiastically than the British, and few British writers do so with more aplomb than Sharpe. Along the way he takes plenty of jabs at Thatcherite politics, tasteless architecture, the myth of family happiness, the arrogance of city-dwellers and the provinciality of country life. Nothing's sacred here, certainly, except the power of humor to search and destroy.

***

Rumer Godden, a British author of more than 60 books who will celebrate her 90th birthday this year, returns to India-where she spent much of her childhood - with a new novel, "Cromartie vs. the God Shiva" (Morrow, 208 pages, $22). Set in a luxury hotel on south India's Coromandel coast, the book features an ambitious young lawyer sent from London to investigate the theft of a valuable bronze statue of the Hindu god Shiva. He solves the case, falls in love with a beautiful archaeologist and returns to London a wiser and more worldly man.

Godden's novel, which was inspired by a real incident, reads as though it were written far too hastily. (Here's a sex scene, in its entirety: "It was like fire, rockets. Oh,Michael. Again.' " ) But its piquant descriptions of the Coromandel coast seem authentic, as does the author's respect for India's ancient, wondrous culture.

***

Somewhere there is a novel that gives full testimony to the profound effect of AIDS on the gay community in New York City during the 1980s. Unfortunately, despite its earnest ambitions, Allan Gurganus' "Plays Well With Others" (Knopf, 336 pages, $24) is not quite that novel. This tale of three artistic pals - a composer, a painter and the narrator, a writer - who come to Manhattan seeking love and fame tries hard (indeed, too hard )to give a sense of the heady freedoms of the decade that were revoked all too swiftly by the scourge of AIDS.

Gurganus, who also wrote the well-received 1989 novel "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," loses too much momentum in self-indulgent rambling. The good parts of the book, those involving the narrator's tireless caretaking of his dying friends, are buried among pages of cutesy puns and improbable dialogue. One can only wonder whether a talented editor might have cut this novel by a third and scooped a leaner, more truly affecting story out of the swollen carcass cast aside by Gurganus.

***

Finally, in a season filled with the mature work of seasoned novelists, the venerable English writer John Mortimer, creator of the beloved "Rumpole of the Bailey" series, weighs in with a lively new book called "Felix in the Underworld" (Viking, 247 pages, $22.95).

Mortimer's hero this time is Felix Morsom, a charmingly frumpy novelist of middling success who finds himself implicated first in a paternity suit and then as the suspect in a murder case. In the course of the narrative, Mortimer also delivers a funny, thoroughly hip satire of the contemporary publishing business. Read this novel for the considerable pleasure of watching an old pro show off some new tricks.

Donna Rifkind writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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