Dantesque, obsessional, haunting

Serious Summer Novels


When I was a child, June signaled summer vacation and languid days spent at the local library. Adult vacations are perilously short, but books still offer the best getaway -- that frigate Emily Dickinson spoke of "to take us miles away." Several new novels provide a sumptuous vacation package -- exciting enough to be page turners, serious enough not to be mistaken for mere beach reading.

At first glance, "The Descent" (Crown, 448 pages, $24), Jeff Long's mesmerizing tale of life in the not-so-distant future looks like beach fare -- a genre potboiler -- and in the hands of a less skilled and inventive writer may have been just that. But Long's smart and epic tale takes the reader into a Dantesque world, a journey to the center of the earth for the new millennium. And what is found there is both horrific and entrancing: a system of tunnels that network beneath the earth, and homonid relatives of Homo sapiens evolved to live in the depths of what appears to be hell. But don't let the sci-fi tone daunt -- this is serious stuff.

No mere morality tale, "Descent" elucidates corporate greed and scientific exploration, and features the struggles of Ali von Schade, an anthropologist nun; Ike Crockett, a mountaineer and former human slave of the "hadals," hell's homonid inhabitants; and the Beowulf Circle, a group of scholars and scientists trying to locate the actual, living, breathing Satan. Long deftly blends science, myth and a superb imagination to provide an entrancingly dark novel, one whose only pitfall lies in a weak ending that leaves room for a sequel. Still, "Descent" is a novel for the thinking reader -- bright and scintillating, illuminating the darkness it so smartly depicts.

Darkness lies at the heart of "The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly" (Avon/Bard, 368 pages, $23). Greg Hrbek's poignant novel of love and loss. Tom Markham first meets Lindsey Paris in church; he a 7-year-old altar boy, she a teen-age hippie. Tom witnesses a crime against Lindsey; later the death of his mother in childbirth and a murder cement their connection irrevocably. For the next two decades they will weave in and out of each other's lives, magnetized by tragedy, secrets, lies and an enduring and sensual love that ultimately transcends all else.

Hrbek's first-person narrative has an eloquence in its evocation of one man's personal demons; the language is both lush and riven with pain. The child Tom is deeply tortured yet very, very real, as is the young Lindsey. The adult Tom lures the reader with his obsessional search for love and truth, but Lindsey is less well realized, particularly as the stuff of several lovers' obsession -- Tom, her husband Philip Davenport and African-American lesbian Nile Treadway -- and many readers may find the ending cloying. Nevertheless, "Hindenburg" compels, illuminating as it does the sometimes murderous rites of passage young men must traverse to reach healthy and sane adulthood.

Pain takes a different form in "The Weight of Dreams" (Viking, 389 pages, $23.95). Jonis Agee's beautiful novel of the American plains and the secrets of this last frontier. Set primarily in the Nebraska Sandhills and Kansas prairies, "Dreams" is the thinking person's Larry McMurtry.

Protagonist Ty Bonte has struggled all his life -- first under the weight of his father's fists, later under the burden of shame for his involvement in a crime against two Native Americans that sent him fleeing to work the horse trade for 20 years, until his past catches up with him just when life seems to finally make sense.

Agee charts an expansive cartography, a landscape of violence, death, deceit, racism and redemption. Her characters have a depth that resonates with the pain of lives shattered by one wrong -- and irrevocable -- move.

Scenes of extreme violence may offend some readers, though they are never gratuitous. Provocative as it is evocative, "Dreams" will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned and send one in search of Agee's earlier works.

In "Song of the Exile" (Ballantine, 368 pages, $24.95), Kiana Davenport explores a different side of history, one fraught with the kind of violence only war can invoke. Keo and Sunny begin as young lovers in Honolulu in the calm before the storm of World War II. Keo, a budding jazz musician, sets off for the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, and later to Paris, where it sizzles.

Sunny stays behind to protect her abused mother, only to be forced to leave Hawaii after nearly killing her father. Sunny's idyll with Keo in a Paris soon to fall under German occupation is short-lived; when fate intervenes it spells disaster for them both.

"Song" details a little-known horror of WWII -- women kidnapped, tortured and held in camps by the Japanese as "comfort women" -- sex slaves to the Imperial Army. Unlike recent nostalgic tales of WWII, "Song" explores the incomparable brutality -- and insanity -- of war from the perspective of two people who thought they could remain untouched.

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