The West, ideals, Christmas satire Novels for November

November 15, 1998|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,special to the sun

One of the finest fruits in autumn's cornucopia of new novels is Speer Morgan's "The Freshour Cylinders" (MacMurray & Beck, 345 pages, $23). Don't be put off by the awkward title: Morgan, the current editor of the Missouri Review, has concocted a genuinely suspenseful tale set on the dusty border between Oklahoma and Arkansas in the heart of the Great Depression.

Tom Freshour, the mixed-blood Native American with a haunted past who first appeared in Morgan's 1994 novel "The Whipping Boy," is an assistant prosecutor in tiny Fort Smith, Ark. (He's reciting his story 26 years later into an old-fashioned Dictaphone machine, which makes recordings on wax cylinders; hence the book's title.)

While tracking the murder of a local collector of Indian relics, Freshour soon becomes entangled in an affair with a beautiful archeologist, a political scandal implicating a corrupt sheriff and a greedy oil baron, and a bizarre mystery involving ritual sacrifices near the Spiro Mound, a local archeological dig full of pre-Columbian artifacts.

Morgan's plot, which is fast-moving but complex enough to keep readers guessing, is packed with well-drawn minor characters, mostly drifters and sleazy bureaucrats on the take in a land of evaporating opportunities. Most engaging, though, is Tom Freshour, observer and hero, who is enjoyably hard-boiled and yet sweetly vulnerable.

November's other new Western thriller is Susan Isaacs' "Red, White and Blue" (HarperCollins, 405 pages, $25). Set mostly in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Isaacs' eighth novel does some matchmaking between Charlie Blair, an FBI agent out of Cheyenne, and Lauren Miller, a young reporter for the Jewish News in New York.

Arriving simultaneously in Jackson Hole to investigate a bombing credited to a white-supremacist militia called Wrath, Charlie and Lauren initially annoy each other but soon fall in love. As the pair tries to infiltrate the nefarious world of Wrath, Isaacs searches through their family trees and reveals that the all-American, ranch-bred G-man and the assimilated Jewish city girl actually share the same immigrant great-great-grandparent. Although the lovebirds don't know they're third cousins, this big coincidence gives Isaacs lots of chances to ponder what it means to be an American.

Isaacs' characterizations may not be spanking fresh - her militiamen are familiarly evil caricatures, and Lauren is too prettily idealistic-but the author's cheerleading optimism about the virtues of melting-pot America is irresistible. And if the ending seems too tidy, there are compensating thrills in Isaacs' lovely descriptions of the majestic vistas of Wyoming and Idaho.

St. Louis, 1845: A ragtag group of devout Chasidic Jews, having escaped to America from a Polish shtetl, embarks on a perilous trek through the Oregon Trail. So unfolds the plot of Ruhama Veltfort's first novel, "The Promised Land" (Milkweed, 300 pages, $23.95). Yitzhak, the group's charismatic leader, is driven by visions to seek a new Eden in the wilderness of the American West; Chana, his devoted wife, follows with a more pragmatic approach.

Asher, their brother-in-law, is the doubting adversary. In describing these intensely spiritual immigrants' grand encounter with America, Veltfort's book explores some of the same issues as "Red, White and Blue." Veltfort's prose style is far more earnest and less sophisticated than Isaacs', but her emotional -- and physical landscapes are just as stirring.

Worlds away in time and sensibility is Mark O'Donnell's contemporary Christmas satire "Let Nothing You Dismay" (Knopf, 193 pages, $22). Tad Leary is a 34-year-old New Yorker who has just lost his teaching job, is soon to be evicted from his sublet, and can't seem to get cracking on his graduate-school thesis.

Comfortably out of the closet but unlucky in love, he's dreading another Christmas with his dysfunctional family and the inevitable dreary round of parties.

O'Donnell's protagonist, in other words, is a tad leery (get it?) of all the joys of the season, and both loves and hates himself for it. "He was his own best friend and his own worst enemy, which averaged out to mean he was barely acquainted with himself," O'Donnell quips, and there are scores of equally witty epigrams throughout the novel. The author is a humorist and playwright who writes like Fran Lebowitz with a heart: his characters are as affecting as they are funny.

The Italian writer Paolo Maurensic, whose first book, "The Luneberg Variation," was a best seller throughout Europe, follows up with an elegantly creepy second novel about two ambitious young violinists. "Canone Inverso" (Holt, 202 pages, $21) is part ghost story, part morality tale based on the Cain and Abel parable, and part allegory about fascism.

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