A thumb, death, faith and souls

November Novels

November 07, 1999|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

Childhood and its perils, coincidentally, is the theme of all six novels this month. Walter Kirn's "Thumbsucker" (Anchor Books, 320 pages, $14) tries hard to offer a moving comic portrait of youth in crisis. Justin Cobb, Kirn's 14-year-old, orally fixated hero, is enduring a rocky Reagan-era adolescence in a small Minnesota town. His dad's an ex-football star turned hyper-macho survivalist, who keeps dead woodcocks in the freezer and refers to his family as "you people." Filled with loathing for this ranting authority figure, Justin also resents his little brother, a jock with a secret fetish for designer clothes, while harboring a hopeless crush on his vague, ethereal mother.

No wonder this kid sucks his thumb. Nothing helps; not Ritalin, not the flaky ministrations of the new-age local dentist or the wholesome summertime regime at Camp Overcome. The novel unfolds in a series of increasingly repulsive episodes, featuring Justin's vomiting grandmother, his lecherous debate-team instructor, a drug-addicted baby and a gas-station insurance fire. There is much father-and-son fish gutting and deer draining, and, in the last chapters, an entirely implausible conversion of the entire Cobb family to the Mormon faith.

Too ridiculous to be poignant and too pleased with itself to be funny, Kirn's book ends up being just unsavory, like a kid with a major case of the cooties -- like Justin Cobb.

A world away from this boorishness is Eliza Minot's elegant first novel, "The Tiny One" (Knopf, 272 pages, $22). Narrated by 8-year-old Via Revere, the youngest of four children in a comfortable Massachusetts family, the book struggles to make sense of the death of Via's mother in a sudden traffic accident on a wintry road. Via's voice is commendably authentic, concerned as any fourth-grader ought to be with candy and scabs and the eccentric behavior of her classmates, while her love for and dependence on her mother throbs like an ache throughout the book.

The biggest risk in an elegiac work such as this is, of course, a slip into sentimentality. And here indeed there are a few too many memories of perfect summer afternoons and cozy snuggles with an unconditionally loving mommy. Yet Minot's depictions of this lost paradise, deepened and saddened as they are by the tragedy that follows, generally manage to avoid mawkishness.

What's admirable here is Minot's skill at intimating the more complicated world outside Via's cruelly abbreviated love affair with her mother while never breaking ranks with the limitations of her heroine's childish point of view.

Another first novel about mothers and daughters, Judy Budnitz's "If I Told You Once" (Picador, 304 pages, $24), has an interesting gimmick, tracking four generations of women from a European shtetl to contemporary New York in the style of a protracted folk tale. The village where Budnitz's protagonist Ilana is born is no tidy little Anatevka; it's a harsh, gray, violent world full of quasi-mythological figures, including Ilana's own spell-casting mother, her monstrous, flesh-eating brother, and a forest full of bloodthirsty bandits and soldiers.

Through miraculous circumstances, Ilana escapes this Hobbesian universe, falls in with a troupe of actors, follows one of them to America, and sets up residence in a Manhattan tenement. Her twin sons are killed in Hitler's war, leaving only a daughter whom she despises and, eventually, a granddaughter and a great-grand-niece who fear and revere Ilana as a witchlike force of nature.

Budnitz's novel cleverly blends the ghostly grimness of fairy tales with historical fact and modern urban details. The result is an artful feminist spin on the kind of magic realism popularized by I. B. Singer and Bernard Malamud.

On the subject of feminist spins, Mary Saracino's "Finding Grace" (Spinsters Ink, 288 pages, $12) has all the hallmarks of a first pick for Oprah's book club: infidelity, child abuse, female victimization and renewed faith and redemption. It's 1967, and 10-year-old Regina Giovanni and her two younger sisters are forced to leave their upstate New York home when her mother decides to start a new life in Wisconsin with her lover, a former priest.

When the priest turns out to be an abusive ne'er-do-well, Regina and her sister Rosa become runaways, finding refuge with a grandmotherly stranger named Grace. Equal parts therapist and guardian angel, Grace reveals that she too suffered from abuse and imparts some homespun wisdom that gives the girls strength to cope with their predicament.

Although there's little that's fresh or surprising about "Finding Grace," which could serve as a blueprint for a certain kind of inspirational women's novel, the powerlessness of these children and the rawness of their pain manages to be tremendously affecting.

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