Ahab, Tourette's, Chicago, London

October Novels

October 03, 1999|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

In Hollywood, aspiring screenwriters are taught to pitch their stories in short bursts of snappy prose. If you can't knock the moguls off their feet in 75 words or less, you might as well shred your script and get a real job. In recent years the book business has also fallen under the spell of the "high concept" story, and that's a real boon for authors who want to write screen treatments disguised as novels.

At first glance, Sena Jeter Naslund's "Ahab's Wife, or the Star-Gazer" (Morrow, $28, 666 pages) appears to be something that a couple of Hollywood hacks might have cooked up. You can almost hear the pitch: "Well, Mr. Spielberg, it's a feminist Moby-Dick with a great part for Jodie Foster as the neglected but heroic wife of an abusive sea captain. Our story begins with Mrs. Ahab staring out to sea ..."

But Naslund's novel is neither trite nor predictable. In fact, it a beautifully written and very moving tale that is difficult to put down. Like Melville's book, "Ahab's Wife" demonstrates an intimate knowledge of both the sea and the human heart. And, at times, the author's prose is almost as dazzling as Melville's.

Describing a steamboat at rest on the Ohio River after a long journey, she writes that its bright red paddlewheel looked like "a gigantic rose, brilliant, red, perfect, still as eternity." And the first sentence of the novel is wonderfully coy: "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."

Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" (Doubleday, $23.95, 311 pages) is the kind of novel that defies easy summary. It's funny, delightfully complicated and so outrageously inventive that no pitch could do it justice.

For one thing, the unlikely hero is an earnest but bumbling detective who suffers from Tourette's syndrome. As he wanders the underworld of Brooklyn in search of a killer, he must contend not only with the usual mysteries of crime but also with a disease that makes him shout the most appalling things at the most inopportune times. He is an endearing and ridiculous character whose surreal adventures turn Brooklyn into a giant house of mirrors custom made for an antic, absurdly garrulous gumshoe.

For readers who enjoy the eccentric and rambling family narratives of John Irving, "Eddie's Bastard," by William Kowalski (HarperCollins, $24, 367 pages), is a first novel that deserves attention. Kowalski lacks Irving's comic timing and fanciful imagination, but he has a sharp eye for the details of family life in rural America and a good understanding of character.

The bastard of the title is young Billy Mann, whose father dies in Vietnam and whose mother is unknown. With the help of the grandfather who raises him, Billy tries to reconstruct a family history that is as tangled as it is bizarre. But what he discovers about his past is not nearly as important as the guidance that he receives each day from the grandfather who teaches him how to love.

It's been five years since mystery writer Sara Paretsky produced "Tunnel Vision," the last volume in her very popular detective series featuring the resourceful and daring female sleuth V. I. Warshawski. With this month's "Hard Time" (Delacorte, $24.95, 384 pages), Paretsky returns to the series that has established her as one of the best crime writers in the business.

It is not merely the engaging character of V. I. that attracts readers, but Paretsky's vivid treatment of her gritty Chicago settings. No major writer today has done more to bring modern Chicago lovingly to life on the page. In all its brashness and chaos the city lives and breathes in Paretsky's remarkable series of novels.

"Hard Time" puts V. I. on the case of an abused young woman whose body ends up lying in the middle of a busy Chicago street. The discovery of this battered victim leads the detective into the dark underside of the glamorous media world, where she finds vague mystery and all-too brutal horrors. It's a story that also takes a few shots at the evils of the women's prison system, once again demonstrating Paretsky's ability to combine social criticism with a good old-fashioned thriller.

Anne Perry is another master of crime fiction who rarely fails to deliver a strong story and a colorful cast of characters. Her Victorian investigator William Monk is featured in her latest novel, "The Twisted Root" (Ballantine, $25, 346 pages), which begins with a murder on London's Hampstead Heath. Throw in a beautiful widow on the run, a clever nurse who assists Monk and some tense courtroom scenes, and you have a novel whose suspense remains high until the final pages.

Michael Grant Jaffe's "Skateaway" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 260 pages) is a memorable novel by a young writer who is building an impressive reputation. His first novel, "Dance Real Slow," is a tale about the fragile bond between fathers and sons and received glowing reviews when it appeared in 1996. Now, he is back with another elegantly crafted family drama.

"Skateaway" explores the lives of three siblings living in a small Ohio town. For various reasons their family is not popular, and the children are forced to fight an extraordinary battle against hateful neighbors who won't leave them alone to grow up in peace. The children prevail, but the emotional roller-coaster of their lives will leave readers breathless by the end of the book.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and others.

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