Redemption, doubt, hostages, wit

Six April Novels

May 06, 2001|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some writers - like Melinda Haynes - possess an almost instinctual sense of place. Her second novel, "Chalktown" (Theia, 317 pages, $23.95), revisits both the era (1960s) and site (rural Mississippi) of her immensely successful first novel, "Mother of Pearl."

Sixteen-year-old Hezekiah Sheeland suffers from more than the usual adolescent angst, constricted as he is by a casually cruel mother, Susan-Blair; obsessive absentee father, Fairy; tragic sister, Arena; and mentally disabled toddler brother, Yellababy. And so one day he straps Yellababy to his back, leaving his Pentecostalist mother and her home-turned-thrift-shop behind and sets out on the dirt road that is the artery through George County, Miss., to Chalktown, the mystery hamlet where horror has so beset the residents that they utter no words, but write on chalkboards. In Chalktown Hezekiah seeks answers to questions he doesn't even know how to pose and through the actions of Fairy, discovers the imperiling and empowering nature of redemption.

The literally unspeakable tragedy that afflicted Chalktown, the violence endemic to the rural south of 1961 and the stunning ability of the human spirit to seek hope in the midst of despair provide Haynes' disturbing subject matter. Like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, from the lives of ordinary people Haynes crafts the extraordinary.

*

In a dark cave on a Pacific Island during World War II, August Kleinman meets his fate in the form of a sleeping Japanese soldier whom he must kill. At 78, Kleinman, protagonist of noted short-story writer Ethan Canin's latest novel, "Carry Me Across the Water" (Random House, 206 pages, $23.95), revisits this life-altering moment in anticipation of his own death.

A Jewish refugee who as a teen-ager fled Nazi Germany for Brooklyn with his mother, Kleinman as a young soldier vowed that if he survived he would marry his high school sweetheart, Ginger. The two settle in Pittsburgh where Kleinman opens a brewery that makes him millions.

Canin's exceptionally beautiful novel is told through a series of flashbacks revealling the events that molded Kleinman - his escape from the Nazis with his courageous mother; the tension of his relationship with his father, murdered by a mob in Germany; his adoration of his Italian-Catholic wife and complex relationship with his children; his decision to visit Japan to return a love letter and paint palette he took from the dead Japanese soldier.

Canin balances the thoughtful prose of Kleinman's interior discourse with prosaic conversations he holds with his son, Jimmy, revealing similarities between this relationship and that Kleinman had with his own father. Through his daughter-in-law, a convert to Judaism, Kleinman, who abandoned religion when he married Ginger, finds himself recalling the Orthodoxy of his parents.

Canin deftly melds anti-war sentiment with political history, memory with experience. Though "Carry Me Across the Water" only skims the surface of a deeply complex and memorable protagonist, its stylistic grace makes it a joy to read.

*

Nathaniel Hawthorne meets John Cheever in "The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages, $24), Benjamin Anastas' post-modernist allegory set in suburban Massachusetts. Rev. Thomas Mosher, a young African-American prelate, disappears after two years as pastor of an historic Puritan church of which the congregants are, to a one, rich, white liberals. An investigation ensues, revealing a seamy underside to the pristine village.

Did Mosher commit suicide? Did his rumored (and real) affair with married parishioner Bethany Caruso lead to his death? Was he driven to despair by the relentless insensitivity of his parishioners or his own demons?

Anastas provides some answers (annoyingly, not all one wants) but raises far more questions about the way we live now in this starkly written tale of suspicion and doubt in a New England little changed from the days of the Salem witch trials.

*

Somewhere in South America in the vice-president's mansion, a birthday party is thrown for a Japanese businessman - an undisguised attempt to woo him into building a factory. An acclaimed American soprano has been hired to sing. The president is scheduled to attend, but declines at the last moment, remaining at home, watching his favorite soap opera. Thus when a small band of young terrorists crashes the party, they are forced to take the dinner guests, rather than the president, hostage.

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