Innocence, risk, identity, disability

Six July novels

July 28, 2002|By Judith M. Redding | By Judith M. Redding,Special to the Sun

At 15, Finn Earl learns life's darkest lesson: things are never exactly as they seem. Dirk Wittenborn's dark and stunning Fierce People (Bloomsbury, 335 pages, $24.95) takes Earl from the kitschy Lower East Side of the 1970s to Vlyvalle, a suburban maelstrom part John Cheever, part John O'Hara. In each setting, Earl is mistaken for someone he is not. What he "is" is the son of a wayward masseuse and a well-known anthropologist; once in Vlyvalle, Earl begins his own anthropological study of its denizens.

Things do not go as Earl's mother planned when she whisked her son seemingly out of urban harm's way into its very embrace. Envision a bear trap, a fey young heiress, a sadistic rape, and a bequeathment -- a host of things to shatter what innocence Earl had on his arrival.

Fierce People is coming-of-age meets auto-da-fe; Wittenborn, a former Saturday Night Live writer, wields his moments of hilarity, but Fierce People is serious stuff, Earl an engaging protagonist and this tale of irony and disillusionment sharp and commanding.

The pivotal summer of 1968 is the setting for John Hough Jr.'s charged and evocative The Last Summer (Simon & Schuster, 342 pages, $25). Claire Malek, 39-year-old single mother and aide to a powerful senator, leaves Washington on the eve of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, taking a job as a reporter at a small Cape Cod newspaper as she tries to rebuild her life.

Once there, she finds herself on yet another collision course as she begins an affair with the editor's son, 22-year-old Harvard graduate Lane Hillman. The two have much to offer each other.

In Lane, who departs from the tiny town at summer's end to begin work as a VISTA volunteer in Detroit, Claire finds escape from the danger and cynicism that drove her from Washington; his enthusiasm is intoxicating.

In Claire, Lane finds a lover who treats him as an adult and has no ties to his family. But the affair is being watched by others, putting them at literal risk for their lives. Hough evokes the tempestuous era of the late 1960s as definitively as he does the tremulousness of newfound love.

Veteran novelist Evan Hunter delves anew into the dark terrain of the familial landscape in The Moment She Was Gone (Simon & Schuster, 208 pages, $25). For 15 years, the Gulliver family has maintained the illusion that all is well among siblings Aaron, Andy and Annie, but as twins Andy and Annie reach midlife, certain truths can no longer be hidden. Andy comes to realize what Aaron has intimated for some time: Annie is -- and has been for years -- schizophrenic.

Now Andy must confront his own identity, which has been in large part that of twin; what does it mean to share an identity with someone who has descended so deeply and irrevocably into mental illness? As Andy delves into his past, all his familial attachments come under scrutiny; some can bear it, others cannot.

Hunter's deft portrayal of a dysfunctional American family is, unsurprisingly from such a fine craftsman, vivid and provocative.

An Accidental Woman (Simon & Schuster, 371 pages, $25), Barbara Delinsky's second mystery featuring Poppy Blake, returns readers to the scene of the near-fatal accident in which the reckless teen-aged Blake crashed her snowmobile, killing her passenger and turning Blake paraplegic. Blake's lover, investigative journalist Griffin Hughes, forces Blake to address her guilt and the events of that winter night. As Blake confronts her past, her best friend, Heather Malone, finds her past catching up with her. Malone is accused of murdering a senator's son when she was 18, and only Hughes has the resources to prove that she is innocent.

Delinsky has strong characters in Blake, whose disability never impedes her work, and Hughes, who looks past his lover's disability to the woman within. However, Delinsky needs to broaden Blake's horizons or risk turning her into another Jessica Fletcher whose every relative and friend becomes a criminal suspect.

Los Angeles is the city of a thousand stories and John Kaye's The Dead Circus (Atlantic Monthly Press, 324 pages, $24) ties together the tales of a corrupt cop, the Manson Family and the murder of rising rockabilly star Bobby Fuller. It's 1986, and ex-cop-turned-PI Gene Burk decides to review the 1965 Bobby Fuller murder as a means of keeping his mind off the death of his fiancee, stewardess Alice Larson. Then he meets the Other Alice, a high-school friend of his fiancee's and a former member of the Manson Family.

The Other Alice has film footage of the Sharon Tate murder to sell; caught up in the intrigue are Burk's former LAPD partner, screenwriter brother, mother and the young Nancy Sinatra. But throughout, Burk can't help mourning his fiancee and the LA of his youth. The Dead Circus is good beach reading; a suspenseful page-turner with a few plot flaws.

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