Race, ennui, drugs, elegance

June 21, 1998|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

Five June novels materialize all at once in my beleaguered mailbox, and I rescue them in a hurry, bring them inside and spread them out across the floor. I read just enough of each to know that I am in for an ambrosial treat, and then I settle down into my reading chair with the first of the five galleys on my lap.

"The Inn at Lake Devine," by Elinor Lipman. Random House. 253 pages. $23.

I'm a fan of "The Inn at Lake Devine" even before I've reached the book's third chapter. A thoroughly old-fashioned novel, "The Inn" is Elinor Lipman's latest concoction, the story of a desirable, lakeside establishment whose proprietor makes it abundantly clear that Gentiles are the guests of preference.

The news comes as a shock and effrontery to Natalie Marx, the second daughter of a kindly fruit peddler and his more upscale, though winningly affable wife. Natalie, after all, has read "The Diary of Anne Frank." She is of Jewish stock and has been raised in Newton, Massachusetts, on Irving Circle, where one "made the best out of what was within reach, which meant friendships engineered by parents and by the happenstance of housing." She cannot tolerate the notion that such outright racism exists in the U.S. of A., and her dreams and schemes are marked by her desire to infiltrate the elusive Inn with justice.

A narrative that extends across the arc of several years and ultimately blossoms into a tender love story, "The Inn" is a comfortable, seamlessly written book that resonates both intelligence and sweetness. There's a rare wholesomeness about this tale, a pleasant, pervasive nostalgia that leaves the reader feeling hopeful, uplifted, and without angst.

"My Year of Meats," by Ruth L. Ozeki. Viking. 364 pages. $23.95.

It is jarring, then, to leave "The Inn," and enter "My Year of Meats," the debut novel of Ruth L. Ozeki. Like the author, the book's protagonist is a film documentarian of mixed Japanese and American heritage, and the book itself is a fastidiously arranged pastiche of first and third person voices, memoranda, faxes, recipes, excerpts from "The Pillow Book," and factoids about DES and cattle raising and fertility.

There is no dance of lyricism here; this book has something important to say, cautions to deliver to any reader who dares to brave these pages. Highly original, often funny, the book succeeds at several levels, keeping us in its thrall as it unfolds. There is ennui here, horror, usury, flat-out disgust, but Ozeki also gives us moments of the heart and important victories. It is this surpassing humanity and hugely inventive plotting that elevates "My Year of Meats" out of the realm of mere political commentary and makes it worth reading, despite the havoc it wreaks on one's appetite.

"Death of a Tango King," by Jerome Charyn. New York University Press. 242 pages. $21.95.

Danger lies at the heart of Jerome Charyn's "Death of a Tango King." A wild chase of a book, "Death" keeps the reader running after a jumble of confusions. This Hollywood-style, dialogue-driven adventure story throws the spotlight on a hapless female convict, environmental rangers, a Medellin drug cartel, and Colombia politicians.

We see the action through a scrim of jungle colors, vast distortions, and constant revelations and unmaskings - so many unmaskings that the reader cannot ultimately distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, cannot ascribe reliable motivation to any one of the characters. This, perhaps, is Charyn's point, and indeed it all feels quite apocalyptic, quite like a clash in one's head. It takes a careful reader to follow all this action. It takes a writer with a director's instincts to produce it.

"A World Away," by Stewart O'Nan. Henry Holt. 338 pages. $23.

"A World Away," the fourth book by the much-praised young writer Stewart O'Nan, could not be more different than the "Death of a Tango King." Here what matters most, it seems, is language - elegant, swooping sentences saturated with mood and multiple perspectives. This is a story about broken hearts and disturbed sleep, about characters who are less than what they wish to be and struggle immensely against their disappointments.

Set during one summer of the Second World War, "A World Away" explores what happens to a marriage when a husband strays and a father dies and a son goes off to war. While most of the action takes place by the ocean in the Hamptons, there is little light or breezy about this book; readers who venture here must have the fortitude to withstand a long, bitter season of barely repressed anger, bad choices, and missed opportunities to repair the heart.

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