Binchy, survival, basketball, Oates

March 04, 2001|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"Scarlet Feather" by Maeve Binchy (Dutton, 538 pages, $25.95) is a big, sprawling novel, as charming as its natural-born-storyteller author herself. In Dublin, Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather set up a catering business like no other. Cathy is married to Neil, a humorless human-rights barrister. Feather pursues the beautiful Marcella. Crises abound over a one-year time span; you feel as if you have traversed eternity.

Issues come into play from feminism -- as Cathy deplores her aunt Geraldine's accepting presents from gentleman callers -- to class snobbery. The wonderfully warm ironic voice of Binchy carries the day. Nor will Binchy allow her characters to dwindle into despair. If bad things happen, good things do too, no matter that you can predict who winds up with whom.

In "Bargains In The Real World: Thirteen Stories" (Random House, 221 pages, $19.95), Elizabeth Cox offers an exquisite collection of stories about children who grope for survival despite overwhelming catastrophes. In "Old Court," set just after the Civil War, a boy psychologically maims himself by accidentally shooting a horse belonging to marauders as he tries valiantly to protect his widowed mother. In "The Last Fourth Grade," a teacher, having discovered that her husband was molesting her pupils, kills him. Now, years later, one of the victims, a grown woman, brings her daughter to visit the teacher in prison.

There she discovers that after all these years the teacher she once admired blames the little girls with their "soft little legs" for her husband's vile actions: "You had your flirty ways, your teasing girl voices."

The young girl of "Biology" stupidly gives herself to an itinerant preacher; in "Bargains in the Real World," an orphaned boy compulsively buries the bones of creatures, even killing some, in a futile effort to add closure to the disaster of his life. These stories rise to a clamor of affect, a siren call that belies the seeming smallness of their themes.

Mack Davis is a black basketball star caught in the point shaving scandals of the 1950s in Jay Neugeboren's "Big Man" (A Mariner Book: Houghton Mifflin Company, 224 pages, $13), newly reissued. Neugeboren reveals how nearly impossible it is for a black man of that era to transcend even a defeat for which he is not wholly to blame.

A sportswriter named Rosen tantalizes Mack with talk of an anti-trust suit against the NBA, but no one could accomplish that then -- or now. Reminiscent of "Native Son," "Big Man" is an unsentimental excursion through the cruelties of the game of basketball, college and professional.

Not to be missed is the author's acquaintance with the game. "The big mistake you make," Mack coaches his little brother, Ronnie, "is to play the ball too much, get your whole body over to one side or you be a dead duck if I switch quick." Rather, Ronnie should "keep going ... hide that ball with your body till the last minute, otherwise I let you go by every time till you start to shoot, and reach across like I did."

Mack is doomed to residence in the underclass. He washes cars for a living, despite the ability which should have catapulted him into the NBA. Mack is ennobled by his refusal to blame anybody else for his fall from grace. He refuses to be made a "symbol" of anything. This was Neugeboren's first novel, published in 1966. It's as timely today as it was then.

The violence intensifies as "Faithless: Tales of Transgression" (Ecco Press, 352 pages, $27), Joyce Carol Oates' latest collection, progresses. In even the most mild of people, rage churns. These are litanies of defeat. Borrowing from the theme of her earlier story, "What Is The Connection Between Men and Women?" Oates paints love as madness. "The Lover" is out for murder, having been "sent away" by a man. In "Summer Sweat," a woman has married the wrong man.

Every life bears material for a thriller, Oates suggests. Witness Gretel Nissenbaum of the title story. "This is what is done, a man, a woman -- isn't it?" one of her daughters learns. People "turn against you. Turn faithless." What remains is the paraphernalia of death. Oates remains master of suspense, and discovers what we never tell anyone: "Loneliness is like starvation. You don't realize how hungry you are until you begin to eat."

If these stories occasionally slither over the top, if the blood beats too emphatically, by that time Oates has you under her spell. You can't stop reading.

"Border Crossing" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 216 pages, $22) is a dark, claustrophobic psychological thriller by Booker Prize winner Pat Barker. A boy named Danny murdered the old lady who lived next door when he was 10 years old. A decade later, has he changed? Barker envelopes her story in suspense, every detail adding an ominous miasma. A seagull flies by with a wing partly torn off. A young man, who turns out to be Danny, suddenly jumps into the murky river outside a psychologist's door.

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