Poverty, primitivism, passion, pap

Novels of August

August 25, 2002|By Dail Willis | By Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

Every life has a defining moment, a point when a single choice changes everything that follows. It comes early in some lives, late in others. That one important choice is the theme that links the six novels reviewed below.

For 15-year-old Steven Parker, the character at the center of More Than Enough by John Fulton (Picador USA, 192 pages, $13), that moment is painful. When he and his sister take a walk into the nicer part of their Salt Lake City neighborhood, he is beaten by a gang of neighborhood kids because he's not Mormon.

His misfortune becomes a windfall for his impoverished family. The father of the boy who hurt Steven the most agrees to a large cash payment as restitution. But when the money runs out, the family's troubles begin in earnest. Steven and his younger sister are the casualties as his parents' marriage founders on the shoals of poverty and failed hopes.

Fulton cleverly uses the monochromatic Mormon society in this novel, against which the Parkers' collective oddity becomes a serious handicap. Steven's first-person narrative, rich with adolescent awkwardness and anger, hones the emotional edge of a family falling apart.

For the elderly Irishwoman who narrates Annie Dunne by Sebastian Barry (Viking, 320 pages, $24.95), the defining moment takes a lifetime to find but ultimately brings peace. Annie Dunne has been left hunchbacked by polio in childhood ---and being unmarried and uneducated as well, has had to depend on the kindness of family and friends. It's an uncertain living at best, but 62-year-old Annie has landed finally in a place that seems safe, the rustic cottage of her cousin Sarah, also in her 60s.

Without running water or electricity, they live a rural and labor-heavy life that suits them both. (Modern housekeepers will be appalled in particular by the laundry, toilet and kill-it-yourself dinner arrangements.)

But the summer-long visit of Annie's grandniece and nephew, who are 10 and 5 respectively, brings first joy and then trouble. It's a relatively simple tale, but it's elevated into art by Barry's telling, which celebrates and mourns an Ireland nearly extinct. When Annie muses on how no one calls Sarah any more to lay out their dead with cloths and oil, it's an elegy in brogue for more than a corpse: "It is to do with the tarring of the roads, the demise of the traps, the death of things we knew in general. A gift like hers is no longer trusted, being a homemade thing. The shop-bought bread, the shop-bought medicine, it is all part and parcel of the same thing."

An equally rare part of American culture -- that of the cowboy rancher --is similarly mined in The Fruit of Stone by Mark Spragg (Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $24.95). For Wyoming cattleman B. McEban (Spragg builds a joke so good around his first name, not revealed until midway through the book, that I won't spoil it by naming him completely here), the defining moment is adultery with his best friend's wife, a woman he's loved since the three of them were teen-agers. It's a moment of gentleness in a world shaped by hard work and bad luck, and it doesn't last.

She leaves them both, and they go looking for her. At the end of the journey, McEban has lost two people he loved but found two more. Spragg's flinty prose shapes this story, told in a tripod format of past, present and dreams. His writing is often adjective-heavy and mannered. But the reader willing to wade through the chunks of description is rewarded with a nicely nuanced story.

Description is occasionally a saving grace in The Wasties by Frederick Reuss (Pantheon Books, 224 pages, $23). Unfortunately, there's not enough grace to lift this heavy-handed attempt out of the mire of trying too hard.

English professor Michael Taylor has a degenerative disease that he never names for the reader, preferring to call it by the novel's title. It's wrecking his life, not surprisingly, and that of his wife, because he can't talk. When the novel opens, he uses pad and paper and computer to communicate. But as the disease progresses, he shuts down and descends first into a semi-hallucinatory state and then into infancy.

There are a couple of genius moments here, particularly a scene where he goes with his nurse into Central Park and everyone looks like a fruit or a vegetable: "A tall thin carrot of a woman, as organic as anything cultivated by hand can be, came toward us pushing a stroller. You knew just by looking that she was destined to be julienned or grated and served atop a bed of leafy greens more sumptuous to look at than ever actually to eat. And the raspberry in the stroller, all lumps and straining juices, an adored ornament that would go out of her life too soon to be of any real help in it."

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