Families suffer together -- artfully

May 10, 1998|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." With this famous opening line of "Anna Karenina," Leo Tolstoy suggested that while a family's unique unhappiness can hold the seedlings of a story, happy families are not the stuff of art. Six notable new novels published this month show that domestic bliss still isn't striking novelists as worth their attention. But unhappy families, and even happy non-families, come in an more astonishing assortment than even the great novelist could have imagined.

"About a Boy," by Nick Hornby. Riverhead Books. 320 pages. $22.95.

Will Lightman, 36-year-old hipster-scrooge, regards his married friends' desire for children as deeply mysterious, the tots themselves as uninteresting slobs. Little surprise, then, that Hornby means to maneuver him into a meaningful relationship with one.

Hornby's London is a domestic shambles, full of fractured families. At first, this state of affairs serves Will as an opportunity to chase sexy single moms; he stoops so far as to invent a non-existent divorce and child for himself as aids to seduction. "About a Boy" charts his progress from lying Lothario to father figure within a loose confederation of lonelyhearts that stands in for the failed nuclear family.

Hornby manages a few unexpected turns along the way, and some effective rueful humor. He plies his trademark talent for evoking popular culture (shown to better effect in his 1995 hit "High Fidelity"). As entertainment, "About a Boy" comes off without a hitch. As literature, it can't overcome the triviality of its protagonist.

"Damascus Gate," by Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin. 512 pages. $26.

The formidable seventh book of fiction from rugged thinking-man's novelist Stone also depicts a world where family is displaced by other alliances. It manages to be at once a thriller, a probing character study and a novel of ideas - about religion, politics and their bloody crossroads.

American journalist Chris Lucas, illegitimate son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, comes to Jerusalem a spiritual orphan. "With his lack of faith and vague identity," Stone writes, "he could easily be made to disappear ... he had no one behind him."

On the parallel trails of faith and a good story, Lucas gets drawn into a tangle of extremists and their intrigues. In Stone's Israel, characters form and break alliances as it serves political exigencies, unmoored to others in any enduring way.

As the novel's plot snakes toward culmination in the labyrinthine tunnels beneath Jerusalem's Temple Mount, Lucas witnesses escalating acts of faithlessness to people, committed in the name of abstract faith. The denouement leaves few characters unimplicated, the reader a little wiser and very breathless.

"The Angel Max," by Peter Glassgold. Harcourt Brace. 480 pages. $25.

With an almost Tolstoyan sweep, eminent editor Glassgold's first novel chronicles the years 1866 to 1919 in the life of Max Kraft. A devout atheist, this immigrant Russian Jew is at the same time a true believer in America as the Golden Land.

Max dreams of America as a place away from history's ravages on the human soul and the Jewish body. Once there, he maintains a deceptively easy balance between the capitalist establishment within which his career flourishes, and the revolutionary underground inhabited by his siblings, whose long-standing patron or "angel" he becomes.

This richly populated, abundantly detailed historical novel animates Max's moral and political dilemmas in the new world. In the end it plunges the Krafts back into Europe's brutal historical realities.

America's ties to that history prove as inextricable as the familial bonds that keep Max's capitalist career enmeshed with communist causes.

"Secrets," by Nurrudin Farah. Arcade. 248 pages. $23.95.

Exiled Somali writer Farah takes us in and around Mogadishu just before the outbreak of civil war. As his countrypeople revert to fierce clan loyalty, the protagonist Kalaman confronts the possible dissolution of his own blood ties.

In spellbinding, luminous prose, Farah unpeels layer after layer of family history. His Somalia longs to be freed of ancient antagonisms and delivered into stable nationhood built on reason. Purged of its painful secrets, the family seems the best hope of transcending clannishness without abandoning the country's rich shadow world of magic, myth and animism.

"Defiance," by Carole Maso. Dutton. 272 pages. $23.95.

Maso's fifth novel interweaves a sensationalistic crime-and-punishment plot and a deeply imagined family history. Harvard professor Bernadette O'Brien writes her memoir from death row, convicted for the murders of two male students. A physics prodigy from working-class Boston, bad Bernadette suggests the monster that good Will Hunting might have become if Robin Williams hadn't rescued him from the dark side.

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