Wiggins, Walker, Canin, O'Brien NOVELS FOR AUTUMN

September 20, 1998|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Make time for novels this fall: it's essential. Whether it's weather you're after, inquiry, character, the melody of well-crafted verse, or the sheer pyrotechnics of a real writer's imagination, you'll find it all in this season's novels, and you'll be forever glad that you did.

Marianne Wiggins' "Almost Heaven" (Crown, 212 pages, $23) is a tour de force about weather and memory, about how love both heals and quakes the heart. It is chapterless, breathless, full of violent psychic unearthings, the lost and found objects of the soul. It is a novel of ideas and the sort of philosophical declarations that demand both careful reading and respect: "We cannot weep for millions we can only weep by ones," Wiggins, through her protagonist, tells us. "Grief ruminates on crumbs."

But make no mistake: "Almost Heaven" is neither obtuse nor abstract, nor is it flawless. This is a flesh and blood novel if ever there was one, with Wiggins wielding a smart, over-the-shoulder third-person voice to deliver what feels like the very electrical charges of one man's edgy mind.

Holden Garfield is a seen-too-much, stranger-in-his-own-country foreign correspondent, a man now home from the war and without a hearth. Desperately seeking to forget the horrors he's seen, he is pulled, like strange weather pulls one, to the aid of Melanie, the sister of his now-elusive mentor.

Several years his senior, her beauty somewhat faded, Melanie has been in the throes of hysterical amnesia since losing her husband and children in a freak act of nature. Only by remembering what she has earned the right to forget will Melanie begin the arduous process of healing. Holden, in deep denial himself, becomes the fascinating bridge to her future and her past.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker takes us deep into her imagination with her sixth novel, "By the Light of My Father's Smile," (Random House, 256 pages, $22.95). Hugely original, "Light" has more than a hint of incantatory magic about it, as deceased characters narrate fragments of the tale from their beyond-the-grave posts, a dwarf makes a stunning series of appearances, and sex, amply and provocatively portrayed, is a religious, transforming experience. "Light" explores what happens - to an entire family - when a daughter cannot forgive her father for a single, hypocritical, soul-crushing act. It explores the dangerous bonds of fidelity between sisters, lovers, memories. It celebrates, in the words of Walker herself, "sexuality, its absolute usefulness in the accessing of one's mature spirituality."

Set variously among a mixed race of Blacks and Indians in the Mexican Sierras, upon the strange, bright landscape of Greece, in squalid urban apartments, and in heavenly ethers, "Light" manages to tell a coherent story despite a proliferation of storytellers and tenses, an utter reshuffling of time. Walker's language is sensual and at the same time delightfully precise; readers see what this writer imagined. Political, immodest, astonishing by turns, "Light" once again demonstrates Walker's gigantic talent.

With "Eucalyptus" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 264 pages, $23) Australian writer Murray Bail seamlessly delivers part fairytale, part literary commentary, part botany lesson. The novel is, on its surface, deceivingly simple - tracing what happens when Holland, an oddball widower living on a property in New South Wales, decrees that his gorgeous, freckled, increasingly pursued young daughter may marry only the man who can identify the species of each and every gum tree on the grounds. It's no easy task - there are literally hundreds of species - and pursuer after pursuer fails, until a plodding, not especially appealing man arrives with an apparent excess of right answers.

It takes days and weeks to name the trees, and the daughter, horrified, is also distracted when a mysterious young traveler appears among the groves and begins relating dazzling stories of far-off places and events.

"Eucalyptus" is both clever and daring, not easily classified. One feels at times as if one were reading the Brothers Grimm, and then again, one feels privy to the private workings of the author's necessarily self-conscious mind. "Eucalyptus" is a book for those entranced with stories within stories, with the deflected imagery of a fabulous fabulist.

Helen Schulman is a smart, funny, sensitive writer, and "The Revisionist" (Crown, 256 pages, $23) is no holds barred, complete unto itself. In these pages we make acquaintance with Dr. David Hershleder, an almost middle-aged Jewish neurologist who finds himself without the security of his beloved wife, Itty, and their children.

His isolation is his own doing, in so many ways, for he had, he can admit to himself now, sleep-walked through his marriage, had been "myopic and self-preoccupied," a scientist through and through who had done more listening to the thoughts that played out in his head than actual conversing.

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