Truth vs. love, shticks, the midlife

Six Autumn Novels

September 23, 2001|By John Muncie | John Muncie,Sun Staff

Befitting a season of ripe days and ever-cooling nights, there's a bittersweet quality among much of this month's fiction. In Mylene Dressler's second novel, The Deadwood Beetle (BlueHen Books, 227 pages, $23.95), the bitterness comes from a past that's as implacable as impending winter.

One day in a New York antique shop, Tristan Martens, a retired professor of entomology, stumbles upon a pine sewing table that once belonged to his mother. Martens was a child in Rotterdam during World War II and written in a childish hand on the table's underside is a Dutch phrase that translates as: "When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones." The true meaning of this ambiguous sentence, as well as the events that led to its composition, slowly unfolds as Martens becomes increasingly involved in the life of the shop's owner, the poised and elegant Cora Lowenstein.

The story is told through Martens' eyes and, in Dressler's hands, this aging, lonely man is a sympathetic if sometimes impenetrable character. Written with a kind of menacing grace, The Deadwood Beetle compels the reader down the converging lines of Martens' growing love for Lowenstein and the truth of his past to their inevitable collision.

When it comes to bittersweet, Garrison Keillor is, of course, an epicure. His alternative radio-show universe, Lake Wobegon, Minn., is peopled with characters whose comical small-town doings are tinged with frost. Keillor's latest Wobegon tale, Lake Wobegon, Summer 1956 (Viking, 291 pages, $24.95), is narrated by geeky, sex-obsessed Gary, who is far more wryly observant than any 14-year-old ought to be.

Gary's family belongs to the Sanctified Brethren, a dour religious sect opposed to anything fun, a fact that makes Gary's mild rebelliousness that much funnier. Summer 1956 is a kind of Wobegon version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the course of dealing with such mundanities as lawn care and schoolyard bullies, Gary crafts poems, soft-core porn and baseball game stories and discovers his true calling as a writer.

What little plot there is revolves around Gary's unrequited romance with his cousin, Kate, and Kate's real romance with a local baseball star. As always, Keillor deftly balances sentiment and sentimentality. Fans are sure to find this new cast of eccentrics as charming as his others. First-timers, not under the spell of Keillor's radio shtick, may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Shtick is about all that Kinky Friedman has to offer in Steppin' on a Rainbow (Simon and Schuster, 208 pages, $23). Whereas Keillor is writing for adults in the guise of a teen-ager, Friedman seems to be writing for teen-agers in the guise of an adult. This is the 14th in Friedman's series of mysteries featuring his eponymous hero. This time, he and his little band of "Village Irregulars" find themselves in Hawaii to track down one of their own.

Apparently some powerfully magical Hawaiian artifacts, the ancient "ka'ai," are missing and so is their pal poet-writer Mike McGovern. As usual, Friedman wanders around in a befuddled daze bumping comically into things. Like the people who populate Keillor's world, Friedman and his merry band are supposed to be endearingly eccentric, but the evidence is elusive. Their dialogue is lewd, crude, fitfully clever and frightfully sophomoric. Puns and private parts are the order of the day. Any connection Steppin' on a Rainbow has to a radio show would have to start with Howard Stern.

British novelist Jane Stevenson could teach Kinky some things about plot, wit and character. Her debut novel, London Bridges (Houghton Mifflin, 293 pages, $24), has an abundance -- sometimes an overabundance -- of all three. While mixing in thriller-mystery elements, London Bridges is basically a social satire that deftly observes young, white-collar Londoners.

The story revolves around the attempted theft of a treasure trove of Greek religious artifacts and some forgotten London real estate controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church. The bad guys are lawyers of cosmic amorality. The good guys include Dr. Sebastian Raphael, a flamboyant scholar of things Greek and a man of Oscar Wildean appearance and appetites, and a loose-knit circle of Sebastian's students, friends and acquaintances.

Stevenson has lots of fun with university types -- the odious professor George Beckinsale is particularly delicious -- and ends the affair with a distinctly madcap, anti-intellectual chase scene. Everything depends on a series of improbable coincidences -- at one point evil lawyer Edward Lupset wonders in frustration, "Did the whole of ... London know about this property?" --but it's in the cause of a fun, fast-paced read. Kinky, take notes.

As a fan of her 1993 best seller, Like Water for Chocolate, I was rooting for Laura Esquivel's latest novel, Swift As Desire (Crown, 208 pages, $22). But much of the magic has disappeared from her magical-realist style.

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