Riots, heat, myth, genius, gusto

Novels of October

October 13, 2002|By Michael Shelden | By Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

As a subject for a modern novel, the New York City draft riots of 1863 may seem hopelessly obscure and insignificant. Even when memories of the violence were fresh, the only major American novelist who thought the riots were worth discussing was Herman Melville, who wrote a short poem praising the Union Army's tough response to the civilian mobs.

Why, then, should a modern reader want to tackle Paradise Alley (HarperCollins, 688 pages, $26.95), Kevin Baker's enormous new novel on the events of July 1863? At a time when America is facing the prospect of fighting a war over the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, why should anyone care about a five-day riot protesting the Civil War? The answer is twofold: The tale is vividly entertaining, and its themes are as timely as any drawn from this morning's newspaper.

Baker's characters live in a society undermined by intense conflicts over immigration, race, religion, class, sex, war and crime. Focusing on the lives of three women characters, the novel tells the story of how the riots arose in a largely Irish community of immigrants who felt exploited by the upper classes, and who harbored deep resentment against African-Americans as their economic rivals. When Abraham Lincoln's government threatened to make conscripts of the new immigrants and send them to fight the South, a massive riot erupted.

Combining solid research with inspired storytelling, Baker brings to life a truly harrowing time when all of New York City was engulfed in chaos as roving gangs set random fires, looted shops and attacked innocent bystanders. In one particularly terrifying episode, Baker describes a mob assault on the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was set on fire, forcing hundreds of black children to run for their lives. When the smoke clears, the modern reader cannot help but think of similarities between this savage act of terror and that of Sept. 11, 2001.

In Family Matters (Knopf, 448 pages, $26) Rohinton Mistry explores life in a city that is as vibrant and unruly as old New York, though not as violent. Bombay is so beautifully and minutely described in the novel that it seems almost a character in itself -- wayward yet comely. Mistry's story concerns the ordinary joys and hardships experienced by a large middle-class family, yet the book is as much a tribute to the resilient spirit of Bombay as it is a portrait of domestic life in modern India.

At the center of the action is the family patriarch -- Nariman Vakeel -- whose struggles with Parkinson's disease are made more onerous when he breaks his ankle and must receive constant care from his not entirely loving clan. This bare description of the plot may make it sound mundane and dull, but it is Mistry's quiet sense of humor that enlivens the story and makes it a delight to follow.

In a scene that nicely demonstrates the gentle comedy of the novel, two characters are shown engaging in a spirited debate over the merits of air conditioning. If ever a city needed this modern convenience it is Bombay, but one of the characters is so old-fashioned and so fond of his city's tropical climate that he refuses to take refuge in an air-conditioned office. "We Indians," he reasons, "have our own built-in cooling system -- chilies and garam masala make us sweat, the breeze evaporates the sweat, and we are cool."

For readers who are weary of history and real cities, Michael Chabon's Summerland (Talk Miramax, $22.95, 512 pages) is the perfect antidote. An epic adventure in a completely imaginary world, the book is aimed at younger readers, but its style and themes are far more sophisticated than those found in most books of juvenile fantasy. The story begins on an unusual island in Puget Sound where rain never falls and summer reigns all year. In such a place, baseball is naturally the favorite sport. Unfortunately, this idyllic life is threatened by evil spirits who want to ruin the good climate. Naturally, the hero -- a young baseball enthusiast named Ethan -- must set off on a long quest to save summer and its golden pastimes. Younger readers will delight in Ethan's confrontations with monsters, but older readers will find more pleasure in unraveling Chabon's intricate parodies of classical mythology and his affectionate tributes to pop culture.

There is something for everyone in this book, from tall tales to Native American myths. As an American response to the omnipresent Harry Potter, it is especially welcome.

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