A salesman, dynamite, Bali, war

Books Of The Region

July 16, 2000|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Maryland has a new literary light. He is Brad Barkley, of Frostburg, where he teaches college students. Short stories by Barkley have livened the literary quarterlies, but "Money, Love" (Norton, 336 pages, $24.95) is his first novel. It may or may not become a bestseller, this book about an errant father, mother and teen-age son in North Carolina in the mid-1970s, but readers who value insight and meaning will be interrupting one another to announce this new author's arrival.

As young Gabe Strickland tells it, his father had an unerring knack for predicting trends after they'd already arrived. The father is a salesman, the suburban door-to-door kind: full of slogans and tricks, empty of sense and morals. Part Willy Loman, part Doonesbury's Uncle Duke, Roman Strickland forever dreams of the Big Payoff. Already Gabe is beginning to take after him rather than his mother, Gladys, who pays the household bills by working the night shift in a sub-zero ice cream warehouse.

When Gladys finally walks out on them, Roman undertakes to win her back. But his scheme is as shabby as ever. For such a sleazebag, when choosing between money and love, money will always come first. By now Gabe is no longer showing up at school, days at a time. Despite his clear-eyed view of Roman's flaws, is Gabe really going to let himself be pulled into the same aimless, self-centered life?

Barkley earlier lived in North Carolina; his settings and speechways have authenticity to spare. A place, in short, you'd want to get away from. But the Stricklands, having you in their grasp, won't let go of you.

*

Elsewhere in summer fiction, you could say the big noise is the sound of one more building going down in Mary Jo Putney's "The Burning Point" (Berkley, 335 pages, $6.99, softbound). Hero and heroine work for Phoenix Demolition, Inc. of Baltimore.

But within the true-love genre, Putney's move from historical romance to contemporary is the real impact. Forget the swordplay, the crinoline; it is now hard-hat time, and stick of dynamite. (Putney's previous novels have been strong on detail; here, her implosions are thanks to a learning experience at the Loiseaux family's Controlled Demolition, Inc. of Phoenix.) Meanwhile, the Ruxton and Roland Park of her nonbusiness moments provide counterpart emotional blasts.

"The Burning Point" is big in scope. Putney touches on such latter-day realism as Protestant vs. Catholic, upscale WASP over against immigrant Italian, even corporate chicanery. Her major theme, though, is domestic violence -- hero and heroine used to be husband and wife; finally came one fight too many.

"The Burning Point" could have been subtitled "Controlled Emotion"; its many readers will decide for themselves whether this novel is convincing as a happily-ever-after. But if here and there someone who has read it later flames with anger yet holds back, instead of slugging whoever he or she lives with, give Mary Jo Putney an assist.

*

For Mantle Hood, the years of foreign travel as an ethnomusicologist have given way to keyboard fixity as an author of thrillers -- by now, one a year. Situating his latest plot in the Indonesia of "Just a Stone's Throw" (Tale Spin, 322 pages, $21.95), specifically on the fabled island of Bali, Hood could be his own resource person.

For the reader, the consequence is a painless introduction not just to tropical scenery and Buddhist temple customs but even scraps of spoken Javanese, on more than one level. Bali, however, is not just a first-rate sightseer stopoff; as tourism booms, so does hotel and resort construction. So also does native resistance to the vulgarization of religious sites. And, at the smell of money, so does Mafia interest.

In thrillers, hero and heroine tend to be interchangeably handsome and athletic, beautiful and sexy. "Just a Stone's Throw" also presents Toni, or Bharata. Years ago a duplicitous errand-runner in a Manhattan crime family, and accordingly marked for death, Toni on the lam goes native in Bali. Skill at badminton, more so his scraps of Buddhist wisdom, give Toni/Bharata a degree of individuality. He may lose it, now that the hit men have picked up his trail.

*

Beaten at Gettysburg, heading back south, the Confederate army trudges through western Maryland. Ahead, the rain-swollen Potomac bars the way; behind, somewhere, is the Union army. An added difficulty is the wounded. A knock on the door of a Williamsport house means that a half-conscious Rebel is being left there in a Union household that has lost a father and three sons to enemy fire in earlier battles.

The mother and young Chigger remain. He wants to join up and fight, not minister to Captain Tallard. Canal-digger Irish, these; name of O'Malley.

In "Retreat From Gettysburg" (White Mane, 142 pages, $17.95), Kathleen Ernst brings here-and-now realism both to a teen-age boy's emotional confusions and to that small riverbank town's mix of military tension and civilian want. Where are the Union pursuers?

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