A Bruegel, war, brio, angst, reunion

September 19, 1999|By Katherine A. Powers | Katherine A. Powers,Special to the Sun

September brings the urge to think clearly and get on with it. The fragility of this frame of mind and its distempers could be said to be the English novelist and playwright Michael Frayn's great subject. Among living writers he has scarcely an equal in showing how determination and austerity of purpose are confounded by the waywardness of the human spirit, by unruly enthusiasms, by temporizings, and by the simple confusion of life upon earth.

"Headlong" (Metropolitan Books, 352 pages, $26), his latest novel, is narrated -- or deposed you might say, so magnificently deflating is the blandness of its tone -- by Martin Clay, a philosopher whose enthusiasms are a moving target. He is a man, above all, of prodigious powers of procrastination, and when he discovers that a ghastly neighbor is unknowingly possessed of a lost Bruegel painting, he finds the ideal distraction from the completion of a long-overdue treatise upon which his academic career, even his marriage, depends.

Martin is a master at holding his own motives a little off side, out of his scrutiny, a moral sleight of hand that allows his purpose to mutate by the hour. It is a wavering transformation that also reflects the constant slide of events out of his control and their escalation into something both odd and awful. This is a comic novel in the greatest sense, showing, in the end, that what things are and what they mean are two very different things.

*

"Gods Go Begging" by Alfredo Vea (Dutton, 320 pages, $24.95) is a story of war, in the jungles of Vietnam and, some 30 years later, in the streets of San Francisco. It begins with a double autopsy of two murdered women locked in a petrified embrace of horror and desire.

Written in a style that is urgent and poetic, the narrative follows a course strewn with bodies, dismembered and eviscerated, a grisly progress that points to the intolerable fact that the human spirit, in love or despair, dwells in a gruesome vessel, easily destroyed.

Intertwined and, indeed, sometimes mangled together by war and love, are the lives of 10 fully developed characters: a Vietnam veteran turned public defender and a shell-shocked chaplain now on the streets: both Chicano; two widows, Vietnamese and black American, murdered together; their respective husbands, killed by the same explosion; a couple of home boys; a predatory beauty queen; and a white supremacist. This is a powerful novel, lit by phosphorescent desire and shadowed by heartbreaking waste.

*

Polly Slade, erstwhile radical and nuclear protestor, leads the drab life of a social servant in "Blast from the Past," an exuberant black comedy by the English writer Ben Elton (Delacourte Press, 272 pages, $22.95). The only excitement in Polly's life is the frightening attentions of a stalker, until, bang, one night an old flame of 16 years ago arrives on her doorstep.

This is Jack Kent, once an American army officer based at Greenham Common (where Polly had camped as a nuclear protestor) and now a four-star general. Despite the 17-year-old Polly's having been the love of his life, he had dumped her as a liability to his military advancement.

Why is Jack here? Before we find out, the stalker moves into the picture and transforms the situation into a dangerous farce.

Elton writes with wit and brio, and if his story is ultimately implausible, it is, at least, entertaining.

*

"Collectors," a first novel by Paul Griner (Random House, 192 pages, $19.95) bulges with non-specific menace.

At its center, Jean, tense and alone, attends her childhood friend Claudia's wedding. The two have in their past a shared act of vandalism, the memory of which adds its own portion of doom to the book's heavy atmosphere.

At the wedding Jean is thrown together with Stephen, a bad customer with a history of dead women friends. "Mr. Accident," Claudia calls him, as she explains how much she wanted to get the two of them together.

Why? Who knows. Except that they are gravid with angst, the motives at large here are elliptical in the extreme. Jean's progress through these pages is as incomprehensible as it is portentous. It is marked by inexplicable ceremonies, fraught interactions and a lot of waiting for the phone to ring. The novel evokes the sound of one hand writing: dense with similes and meticulous, writerly descriptions, it has nothing to say.

*

"Remember Me," Laura Hendrie's first novel (Henry Holt, 320 pages, $24) is set in a little mountain town in New Mexico. Rose Devonic has made her way back here after an ugly failed romance; and though she's a native of the town and it's the only place she can call home, she's an outsider, a loner, her family wiped out in an accident that took another innocent life.

This, in combination with her indomintable, free-spirited ways, has somehow -- and somehow is the word -- set the town's people, a bunch of small-minded, nosy parkers, against her. It is an unreal, posited enmity, the stuff of fairy tales.

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