Totems, venerables, murder, nature

Six Autumn Novels

October 24, 1999|By Victoria Brownworth | Victoria Brownworth,Special to the Sun

With October come shorter days, cooler nights and fortunately some first-rate novels of identity to curl up with on an autumn evening.

Justin Cartwright's "Leading the Cheers" (Carroll & Graf, 256 pages, $23.95) won England's Whitbread Award -- deservingly -- as it is one of the best novels of the much overdone midlife-crisis genre. Dan Silas, 45 and fresh from the break-up of two long-term relationships (with his lover, Stephanie, and his business partner, Peter), is a bit adrift -- suffering from too much free time and disposable income. Which may be why he chooses to leave his home in London and revisit Middle America, lured by a request to keynote his high school reunion in the tiny Michigan town of Hollybush.

Silas finds he has remained vividly present to his classmates -- notably his high school sweetheart, Gloria, who deflowered him on the senior class trip to Monticello and his high school best friend, Gary, who now believes he is Pale Eagle, an Objibwa in search of lost relics of his tribe. Silas also discovers identity and history are far more fluid than totemic landmarks -- Monticello, Edison's Menlo Park, Henry Ford's River Rouge plant -- suggest.

Cartwright's acuity in describing character and place resonates throughout the novel; we know these people, we know where they live. We are drawn into the same "seductive vastness" of the Midwest, understand being lured by a woman's "wild, slightly soiled, sexual avidity." Writing with compassion, humor and a deft poignancy, Cartwright leads Silas on a journey of discovery that moves us with its quirky, yet honest, eccentricity.

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Eccentricity defines the lives of "The Girls" (Delphinium Books/ HarperCollins, 224 pages,$19) -- four elderly sisters -- in Helen Yglesias' short, sweet novel of old age. Jenny Witkovsky -- known to New York friends and academic colleagues as the writer Jane Witter -- goes to Miami to attend the dying of her sister Naomi, who has cancer. At 80, still the baby of the family -- she finds Eva, 95, Naomi, 90, and Flora, 85 -- in various levels of deterioration.

Yglesias captures the bicultural mecca -- Jewish and Latino -- of Miami deftly; she investigates the cartography of age and memory with the intensity of an explorer in a territory both foreign and familiar. Unafraid to tackle issues of sexuality (Flora, perennially in heat, berates Jenny for not having sex since her husband died), money (the cost of aging ain't cheap -- thousands a week for a room in a nursing home) and death (Flora wants Jenny to Kevorkianize Naomi) ... the bittersweet "Girls" takes the reader down a road many may not wish to travel, but Yglesias makes the trip memorable and evocative.

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The trip Keith Scribner details in the beautifully but chillingly wrought "The Goodlife" (Riverhead Books, 272 pages, $23.95) is based on fact: In April 1992 an Exxon executive was kidnapped and held for $18 million ransom for three days in a storage locker in New Jersey. He didn't survive. The unlikely kidnappers: a suburban couple intent on ameliorating their precarious financial problems.

Scribner takes this truly American tale and turns it into an exquisitely choreographed story of the banality of evil: Colleen and Theo believe they deserve more than they've gotten out of life and they plan -- with a creepy mix of giddy exuberance and businesslike deliberation -- to get it. Not since John Cheever's "Bullet Park" has a novel so captured the violent vicissitudes of suburbia.

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Think Memphis and one thinks Elvis -- not Orthodox Judaism.

Tova Mirvis' lyric debut novel, "The Ladies Auxiliary" (Norton, 352 pages, $23.95), may provide culture shock for those not used to hearing "shabbos" and "Y'all" in the same sentence. When Batsheva -- painter and iconoclast -- and her daughter Ayala arrive late one hot Friday afternoon in the heart of Memphis' Orthodox community, gossip crackles the phone wires even as wives hasten to deposit a shabbos meal (fried chicken and challah) on her doorstep. Who is this woman in her diaphanous skirts and ankle bracelets?

Mourning the loss of her husband killed in the car accident that miraculously spared her and her daughter, Batsheva -- deeply religious convert for whom husband and religion were one -- aches for the comfort of community. What she finds in Memphis may not be what she sought, but her presence -- and her fierce belief -- set a chain of events in motion that are ultimately as cataclysmic as that car crash. Mirvis' storytelling is superb.

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Robert Morgan's period novel "Gap Creek" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 336 pages, $22.95) is reminiscent of James Dickey -- bearing the same naturalist marks of clear, clean prose and often disturbing imagery. Protagonist Julie Harmon attends the death of her adored younger brother (a truly horrific scene) and then her consumption-wracked father. Left to be the "man" of the family of three sisters and an overworked mother, Julie doesn't expect love to catch her unawares as she saws wood barefoot.

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