Bradbury, Kowalski, Pederson

April 22, 2001|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Until he died last year, British writer and teacher Malcolm Bradbury served as a kind of scholarly diplomatic envoy to the free world: a prolific, inspired translator of academese into rich but digestible everyday discourse (fictional and critical). Once again in his energetic posthumous novel "To the Hermitage" (Overlook, 498 pages, $27.95), Bradbury manages to make big ideas not only relevant but riotous.

Two parallel journeys take place in the novel. One has a fictional Malcolm Bradbury ferrying to politically unstable St. Petersburg as part of an exclusive international conference on the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. The other brings Diderot himself to the same city, 200 years earlier, at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Culture shock -- complete with heady pleasures, sharp disillusionments and eventual emotional discovery -- awaits both Westerners in "mysterious, infinitely extensive, positively illimitable Russia."

There's no summing up the range of intellectual issues and ideas on hectic parade in the novel, from the defanging of history under liberal capitalism (Bradbury likens contemporary history to "a theme park" or "noisy museum") to the poststructuralist assessment of the self as a jerry-rigged cultural construction, "a face drawn in the sand on the very edge of the waves in a collapsing cosmos."

Bradbury is a master at finding the fun in such unlikely subjects as political philosophy and postmodernism (which in his lexicon means "guess what, we managed to get a corporate sponsor to pay for it." All the while, beneath these lofty plateaus, the human comedy proceeds, with Character Bradbury bedding sopranos and scandalizing Swedes. "To the Hermitage" is too shaggy to qualify as great literature, but it's as lively as intellectual history gets, and a brainy good read in the bargain.

William Kowalski gets quite a long way by the force of sheer charisma. His second novel enchants the reader early with insouciant charm, and rides that good will almost to the end of the book -- but not quite. "Somewhere South of Here" (HarperCollins, $25, 291 pages) has a large heart and disarming voice but proves a bit impecunious, spending its imaginative wealth early and then just scraping by toward the end.

Billy Mann, whose coming of age was related in Kowalski's first novel, "Eddie's Bastard," is finishing high school in upstate New York as this novel begins. Billy's father is dead, his mother is unknown to him; the sum total of his family is Mildred, his late grandfather's girlfriend. It is at her urging that Billy, with some misgiving, applies to college: "I wadded up all the papers into one great big ball, put it in a box, and shipped it off a week after the deadline. That, I thought, took care of that."

Not so. The college that accepts Billy on this dubious basis is fatefully located in Santa Fe --home also of his long-lost mother, and a few more surprises. While Billy is exploring these new environs, the novel cruises -- it seems euphoric on the stimulant of discovery. But with a crazy quilt of characters and storylines in play, Kowalski more or less drops the balls he has been flinging up so exuberantly, and lapses into easy, conventional resolutions: not what the feisty set-up promised. Nevertheless, there is a real writer at work here, and the book holds ample inspired comedy to tide readers over until Kowalski produces a book fully worthy of his gifts.

Laura Pederson exudes an irrepressible, irreverent spirit not unlike Kowalski's, but hers proves fairly indefatigable. Pedersen is a polymath who writes a column in the New York Times, holds a seat on the American Stock Exchange, and performs stand-up comedy. It is mainly the latter talent that animates her game first novel, "Going Away Party" (Story Line, $22, 326 pages).

Pedersen's heroine, Jess MacGuire, wisecracks her way through the novel, half in thrall with the world and half furious at it. Unsure of what sort of identity she is sowing, Jess remains, at 20, profoundly uncomfortable thinking of herself as an adult. The plot unfolds over a single week when she is alone in the house of her vacationing parents. In that week, she meets a sometime weatherman more than twice her age, slips into an affair with him, and sort of grows up -- all without stepping outside the door.

In a book that lives and breathes in its snappy, unaffected dialogue, Jess compensates for confidence with an inexhaustible magazine of barbs and zingers. Even when they're not that funny, they are delivered with conviction and panache. "You're like a raccoon who has been fed by humans for so long that you've lost your instinct to hunt," she tells the weatherman, who is reluctant to date again after losing his wife. She thinks she knows everything, but what she eventually finds out about him will jump-start the transformation of her sharp wit into something closer to wisdom.

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