Gnosticism, exile, real love, the sea

Six August Novels

August 29, 1999|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the Sun

In the crop of late-summer novels there is something to satisfy almost any taste, or even a complete lack of it. Frederick Reuss' delightful second novel, "Henry of Atlantic City" (MacMurray & Beck, 256 pages, $20), is written with a crisp, engaging intelligence. Henry, a 6-year-old prodigy well-versed in the early Christian heresy of Gnosticism and fifth-century Byzantine history, is bounced between friends, relatives and foster care. His father, a security guard at Caesar's Palace, is on the run after embezzling money from the casino.

Left to his own devices, Henry has taken refuge in the historical Byzantium. The world he finds in such books as "The Coptic Gnostic Library" and the historian Procopius' "Anecdota" fuses with the world around him. Cars are chariots; the racetrack is the Hippodrome; the casino owner and his wife are the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora. The humorless priests at the local Catholic school cannot recognize Henry's gift for the blasphemy of his pronouncements. So they brand him a trouble-maker rather than the lonely, troubled boy he is.

There is a subtle but powerful emotional shift in the novel as Henry realizes the price of his escape into history. The world is too hard and literal a place to tolerate his flights of fancy. Again, he must find, alone, another way to survive.

Reuss wears his learning lightly and writes with a wry, sophisticated humor. Henry's naive, matter-of-fact approach to all he encounters makes daily life in Byzantium seem quite familiar and the mores of a 20th-century gambling town utterly remote.

The unbridgeable gap between inner and outer worlds and the suffering that disparity brings is also the core of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's first novel, "Why She Left Us" (HarperCollins, 256 pages, $24). The disparate worlds of this novel, however, are separated by a generation rather than 15 centuries. Three generations of the Okada family were held in a Japanese-American internment camp in the Colorado desert after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The trauma and humiliation of this experience were so great the family buried it in silence for almost 50 years.

Only the youngest of the Okadas, Mariko, who was born in Camp Amache, has enough distance from this past to uncover it. The wounds she discovers run far deeper than she expected.

The clash between traditional ideals of honor and family duty and the much more flexible views of the immigrants' adopted country has often been portrayed. Yet Rizzuto brings this enduring and irreconcilible conflict to life with rare power and immediacy. More importantly still, in this novel Rizzuto has written a wrenching account of an often unacknowledged and shameful chapter in our nation's history.

Compared to "Why She Left Us," Louise Redd's "Hangover Soup" (Little, Brown and Co., 272 pages, $22.50) is rather thin gruel. Redd has written an earnest, sweet, well-meaning, novel, with just enough bitterness to prevent it from drowning in sentimentality. Faith Evers, a tutor for athletes at the University of Texas-Austin, has finally come to the realization that her husband, Jay, a charismatic jazz DJ, is a full-blown alcoholic.

Desperate to save her marriage, she leaves him when no amount of nagging or cajoling gets him on the wagon. Jay goes cold turkey, but does not tell Faith, wanting to surprise her with his success. In a momentary loss of faith, however, Faith indulges in a one-night stand that has tragic consequences for both of them.

Yet love will carry the day -- a love that Faith reasserts at such length every few pages the reader begins to suspect more than a little co-dependency.

Two reading addictions are well served by James L. Nelson's historical nautical fiction "Lords of the Ocean" (Pocket Books, 364 pages, $23) and James Lee Burke's hard-boiled detective novel "Heartwood" (Doubleday, 352 pages, $24.95).

Nelson has a devoted following who proudly compare him to Patrick O'Brien. "Lords of the Ocean," the fourth volume of Nelson's "Revolution at Sea Saga," follows Ben Franklin's diplomatic mission to Paris in late 1776 to gain French support for the struggling American forces.

A former professional square-rig sailor, Nelson deploys complicated sailing terminology with great agility (and a helpful glossary and chart). He works plenty of historical facts into his narrative and sets an appropriate atmosphere with such names as Weatherspoon, Rumstick, Sprout and Biddlecomb.

Good atmosphere lends a great deal to the success of Burke's "Heartwood." Burke, a two-time winner of the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery of the year, knows how to spin a suspenseful tale with numerous threads tied up in unexpected ways at the end.

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