Steel, organs, history, hopping, Israel

Novels of August

August 11, 2002|By Donna Rifkind | By Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

One of the great satisfactions of fiction is its way of immersing the reader in an exotic milieu. Take Nancy Zafris' second book, for example, through which this ignorant reader learned many remarkable things about a totally unfamiliar subject: scrap metal.

The Metal Shredders (BlueHen Books, 320 pages, $24.95) is the funny and surprisingly poignant story of John Bonner, a third-generation partner in his family's prosperous scrap business in Columbus, Ohio. Suffering through a recent separation from his wife, John must also contend with an overbearing father, a snobbish mother, an artsy sister who's taken a sudden interest in the business, and a throng of kooky employees.

He's also responsible for the maintenance of the fearsome Shredder, which uses 34 magnesium teeth, each weighing 255 pounds and each hitting its target 950 times a minute, to reduce cars to little piles of metal, plastic and fluff.

Zafris' tale takes off when John and several of his workmen find a stash of drug money in the trunk of a soon-to-be-shredded LTD. The ill-gotten cash, which bears the resilient stink of the decomposing murder victims with whom it was found, provides a welcome diversion for John as he ponders both how to deodorize and how to spend the money. While the eccentricities of plot, setting and character here are delightful, The Metal Shredders is most effective in delineating the obligations and disappointments of family life -- particularly those of a family in business, for better or worse, together.

Another second novel, about an equally exotic world, is Sanjay Nigam's Transplanted Man (Morrow, 352 pages, $24.95), set in a busy urban hospital in New York's Little India. Sonny Seth is a gifted young resident whose most illustrious patient is a high-level Indian politician with a rare disease.

Known as the Transplanted Man, the politician has undergone every organ transplant known to medicine, and it's Sonny's job to keep him alive, in secrecy, in order to prevent his political rivals back in India from stealing power.

Teeming with minor characters and manic in its plot, Nigam's novel has a lot to say about the disconnection between dreams of India and its realities, from the perspectives of both Indian immigrants and American Indophiles.

Nigam is a distinguished kidney specialist whose first novel, The Snake Charmer (1998), was widely hailed. Transplanted Man, broader and bolder in subject and setting, is an even more thoroughly impressive effort.

When it was first published in 1905, Swedish novelist Hjalmar Soderberg's Doctor Glas created a scandal with its explicit treatment of sexuality and violence. Long out of print in English and now reissued with an introduction by Margaret Atwood, Doctor Glas (Anchor Books, 150 pages, $12) is an elegant little psychological study that has retained its ability to shock, less now for its subject matter than for its breathtakingly modern technique.

Written as a diary, the novel tells the story of a Stockholm doctor who tries to rescue a young woman from her stultifying marriage to a creepy old clergyman, with murderous results. Full of anxious equivocation, unsettling dreams and loads of guilt, the novel resonates, as Atwood points out, with murmurs of Freud, Dostoevski and Poe; and, in its collage-like pastiche of styles, it seems to anticipate the surrealists and Joyce.

Anchor Books has performed a valuable service in reissuing this disturbing little jewel of a book.

Jasmine Paul is a first-time novelist whose coming-of-age tale, A Girl, in Parts (Counterpoint, 224 pages, $24) recalls lots of other similar books -- Mary Karr's The Liar's Club particularly comes to mind -- but manages to add a unique voice to the genre.

Set in Martinsburg, W. Va., and eastern Washington State in the 1980s, the novel tells of Dottie, an awkward child with a complicated family life. She lives with her barmaid mother, alcoholic stepfather and developmentally delayed little brother, but spends her summers hopping from Cleveland to see her father, then on to the Ohio farm of one set of grandparents, followed by the Detroit home of the other set.

This would be confusing for any child, but when her stepfather moves the family to Washington, Dottie must learn to maneuver among her Colville Indian classmates in an entirely new environment. Honest, plucky, funny and sharp, Dottie is a refreshingly unsentimental and entirely sympathetic young heroine.

Finally, two novels set in Israel provide illuminations about its citizens with contrasting degrees of success. Husband and Wife (Grove Press, 320 pages, $24), by the well-known Israeli literary editor Zeruya Shalev, and Between Two Deserts (MacAdam / Cage, 158 pages, $24), a first novel by journalist Germaine W. Shames, offer strikingly different views of Israelis engaged in love and war.

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