Now, there's trouble in fiction city

Six May Novels

May 12, 2002|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I'd like nothing more than to love every new book I come across, to fall within its spell and then return to sing its praises. I'd like the authors I read to feel duly appreciated. I'd like readers of my reviews to flock, en masse, to the nation's bookstores, cash in eager hands.

But the six novels that have shown up on my desk this spring - all of them highly touted, all of them "big" the way publicists use that word "big" - have presented me with a conundrum. There's an emptiness in some of them that I don't know how to counter. There's a sense that perhaps some of these well-hyped writers were not finally seduced by their own dreams.

Into this wilderness, then, I go, looking for grace notes and conviction. First on my list is the most stunning and successful of the six, Lost Nation (Atlantic Monthly, 370 pages, $25), the second novel by the much-acclaimed Jeffrey Lent. With a natural affinity for the mean, lonely landscape of early 19th-century New England, Lent creates a desperate story about a man named Blood and the tough yet pretty 16-year-old prostitute he wins at a brothel during a game of cards.

Together, they journey to a scant New Hampshire town where men seek justice outside the confines of the law and where they settle right in with a tavern and whoring business. Blood's an educated man escaping a tormented past; Sally's just happy to be free of her mother's brothel. The two protagonists edge defensively around each another - half trusting, sometimes succumbing to tenderness.

Lost Nation is a visceral book. Its scenes and characters are full of sweat, smell, rot and contradictions. But to get into the book, readers must first accede to the rhythm of Cormac McCarthy-style sentences that veer from brilliant to convoluted to just plain pretentious. The second sentence of the book - defiant, ornate, almost arrogant - is representative of much that follows.

It's a whole lot of quote, but just a single sentence.

"The man Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches and a stinking linen blouse, lank and greasegrimed hair tied at his nape with a thin leather binding cut from a cowhide, goad in hand, staggering at the canted shoulder of the near ox, the girl behind barefoot in a rough shift of the same linen as Blood's shirt, her fancy skirt and bodice in a tight roll jammed down in the back of the cart atop her button-hook boots furred now with green slime, the girl's hair no cleaner than Blood's but untied and tangled, redblonde, her face swollen from the insect delirium that her free hand swiped against, an unceasing ineffectual bat about her head."

No matter what one thinks of sentences like these, Lost Nation is worth getting, well, lost in. It is rugged, carefully plotted, and thoughtfully constructed, offering a glimpse of a place and time most contemporary novelists simply can't take us to. Despite its language and its bleakness, despite an ending that is disturbingly reminiscent of Cold Mountain, Lost Nation is a powerful and potentially timeless book, one that does deserve the full-court press it's getting.

The same can not be said, unfortunately, of commercial director-turned-writer Marcus Stevens' debut novel, The Curve of the World (Algonquin, 302 pages, $24.95). "Riveting," the flap copy tells us. Eight-city tour. Book optioned for film. And while the summarized plot does indeed seem potentially provocative - a New York businessman escapes into a primeval rain forest after his plane makes an emergency landing in the Congo Basin, only to attempt to return to civilization even as his estranged wife and blind son come searching for him - it's the execution that gets in the way. The prosaic sentences. The thin back story. The Hollywood finale.

I wanted to love this book - it promised to take me to Africa, after all, into the very heart of a riotous darkness - but I kept coming up against the limitations of its craft, the nagging suspicion that the book itself was perhaps never seen as more than a mere steppingstone to the big screen. The Curve of the World will make a most fantastic movie. I wish that it had made a better book.

What is one to say about Jenn Crowell's second novel, Letting the Body Lead (G.P. Putnam, 274 pages, $23.95)? Just 17 when she wrote her first novel, Necessary Madness, Crowell was swept into the literary spotlight, called a sensation, buried with high expectations, rewarded with huge sales. Such early success must be terrifically daunting, and with her new book, set in New York City and Reykjavik, Iceland, Crowell appears both tentative and stymied.

Her central character, a graduate student named Isobel, is "young and gifted," fond of Doc Martens (as Crowell herself is said to be), and embarked on a journey designed to help her come to terms with the size of her own talents and accomplishments.

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