Oates, Henley, Pogrebin, Buckley

October Fiction

October 20, 2002|By Victoria A. Brownworth | By Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Lives there an American writer more prolific than Joyce Carol Oates? Author of more than 100 books and plays, in her 30th novel, I'll Take You There (Ecco Press, 304 pages, $25.95), Oates returns to the territory she has often charted best, the era of the 1960s, when she herself came of age, as does the book's protagonist.

The anonymous young student narrator, a lonely and introspective writer, comes to pledge Kappa Gamma Pi from an already difficult and unyielding life and there finds nothing but disdain and even tragedy. She embarks on a passionate relationship with a black philosophy student whose intellectual and political remove compels her into obsession. Ultimately, in the throes of 1960s social turmoil, she reconnects with her roots, to complicated ends.

Oates' writing never fails to astonish, even in a novel built around as straitened a character as the narrator. The book's second section, in which the protagonist falls in love with the philosophy student, is breathtaking, some of the best writing America has to offer. As ever with Oaters, the Gothic and the mundane rollick side by side as she spins her sometimes witty, somewhat dark, always obsessive tale. A must for fans.

Patricia Henley, author of the haunting and award-winning Hummingbird House, has an acute ear for the slightest shifts in familial relationships, and it is those that are central to In the River Sweet (Pantheon, 304 pages, $24).

At 50, Ruth Anne and Johnny Bond are happily, passionately married. Ruth Anne's tranquil life has barely a ripple. Then a tsunami threatens when she receives an e-mail: "I believe you are my mother." Ruth Anne's daughter Laurel has just come out as a lesbian, shaking Ruth Anne's strong Catholic adherences. But now her very world will be shaken; she must face the son she left in Saigon in 1968 and explain to her family how, while her then-fiance was a prisoner of war, that child came to be born.

As Ruth Anne's stunning revelations threaten to sunder the family Bond, Laurel and her lover are attacked by local gay-bashers, forcing the family to unite. In this thoughtful, poignant look at how Vietnam changed all Americans, Henley writes about place and time, about how a happy marriage can suddenly become tenuous and a picturesque town turn sinister and dangerous. Henley treads lightly and with love, avoiding mawkishness In the River Sweet.

Co-founder of Ms. magazine Letty Cottin Pogrebin has long written serious nonfiction work from a feminist and Jewish perspective. In her first novel, Three Daughters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages, $25), Pogrebin brings together a banished oldest daughter, a cherished stepdaughter and a brash youngest daughter for the 90th birthday of their father, Rabbi Sam Wasserman. With clarity, depth, intellect and not a little chutzpah, Pogrebin explores how each woman evolves into her own, very different self, discovering her strengths and taking the risks essential to living the life each wants.

Smart and sweet, witty and warm, Three Daughters is a strong fiction debut and highly compelling read.

At the height of the Vietnam War, busing controversies and racial strife, Father LeBlanc is transferred from the parish he loves in South Boston for being too outspoken and broadly interpreting Church doctrine. Sent to a bleak seaside resort in New Hampshire to care for Father Moriarty, dying slowly of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he meets his maker in the truest sense.

The Miracle (Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pages, $24), John L'Heureux's snappy, succulent novel of faith and body, starts out sharp and ends with a razor slash. Lean, crisp prose delineates Father LeBlanc's quest to be a good priest and the faith-sustaining events that propel him there.

Take the O.J. Simpson trial, mix in the Clinton marriage, add a dash of bitters and serve Christopher Buckley's latest satirical cast on American politics and mores straight up. No Way to Treat a First Lady (Random House, 320 pages, $24.95) finds Beth MacMann awakening one morning to find her husband, President Ken, dead in bed next to her.

Beth swears she didn't kill him, even though he was cheating on her left, right and sideways and she had beaned him with a Paul Revere spittoon just before he got into bed. Charged with murder, Beth hires ex-fiance Boyce Baylor, a defense attorney who could have gotten Hitler acquitted. But does Boyce want to save her or sink her?

Buckley's novel is a hilarious burlesque on high-profile trials, the hype surrounding them and, for good measure, the inner workings of the executive branch of government. A good guffaw for whiling away the year-end recess.

Humor heavyweight Dave Barry goes down for the count with Tricky Business (Putnam, 256 pages, $24.95), a would-be satire set on a casino ship off the Florida coast. Cookie-cutter characters and an insipid and predictable plot sink this farce.

Barry employs every stereotype he can dredge up: refugees from The Sopranos, a single mom doubling as cocktail waitress, old geezers escaped from a retirement home and musicians stuck in the perpetual hell that is a club cover band. Add in the down-on-his-luck cruise captain, and it doesn't take much to count snake eyes.

Although there are some moments of high hilarity to remind us that this is Dave Barry at the helm, at times the book's function seems solely scatological. Call this one beached reading, unworthy of the master.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books. Her weekly column on TV and politics, The Lavender Tube, appears in newspapers throughout the United States. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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