Coming alive in an outsider's world

Six January Novels

January 26, 2003|By Dail Willis | By Dail Willis,Special to the Sun

In statistics, they're called "outliers" -- things that fall outside the norm. Outliers in the human condition are the common theme in six new novels reviewed below. Loved or not, real or not, oppressed or not, the characters in these books are outside the norm. Not all succeed, but each offers its own view of who we are and who we could have been.

Cai Emmons examines the unthinkable in His Mother's Son (Harcourt, 376 pages, $25): intra-family murder. Jana Thomas is a doctor in Washington state and the mother of a first-grader. She is the disciplinarian; her husband, Cooper, is the gentler force as they grapple with the challenge of raising their son. But Jana's rigid control is rooted in fear: She has never told her husband her real name and the secret, bloody history of her family.

Emmons, a playwright and filmmaker, deftly builds tension and interest as she peels back the layers of Jana and her secrets. Why someone kills a family member is not a question that can be answered, and she wisely doesn't try. Instead, His Mother's Son is a study of what happens afterward, how survivors cope with pain and loss and guilt, and how the shadows of fear and evil can fall across the next generation. Emmons writes gracefully and powerfully about the relentless pressure of grief and fear.


Last Stop Vienna (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $25) by Andrew Nagorski poses an engaging "what if" question: What if Adolph Hitler had never controlled Germany? Karl Naumann is only 15 at the end of the First World War, and, like the rest of Germany, he is suffering the aftermath of defeat. The money is worthless, there is no food or work, and his brother Gerhard won't be coming home because he has died in combat.

As the sorrow and humiliations mount, young Karl turns to politics, falling into a group of soldiers who can't accept defeat. Violent and reactionary, they roam unchecked across the chaos of postwar Germany. From there, it's a short step into the Nazis and their promises to restore Germany's power.

Nagorski's research and skillful writing bring Karl, Hitler and the party stalwarts to life here, illuminating how the Nazis were able to attract so many followers. The Fuhrer's oddities (all true, as far as I could see) are explored in detail, and one of them -- his incestuous relationship with his niece -- becomes the catalyst for a chain of events that didn't happen but could have. This is a good novel and an effective and scholarly examination of the internal philosophical battles within the Nazi Party before World War II.


There are among us some singular people who just make things happen. Mary Madigan is such a one in Along Came Mary (Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $24) by Jo-Ann Mapson. This is the book version of a "chick flick," with a lot of smart women maneuvering past some pretty stupid men, but Mapson mostly steers clear of bitterness or man-bashing and the result is a funny, readable novel.

Madigan is a country singer, a rodeo performer, a dog handler and an enigma. When she ditches an alcoholic loser and takes up with an unemployed newspaper reporter, the two embark on a journey to California that leads them eventually to both their pasts. It gets a little gooey and too cute in spots -- think Thelma and Louise crossed with Judging Amy -- but it's a fun trip.


What's in a name? If you're writer Peter Lefcourt, a lot of history when the name is Karen. Eleven Karens (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $24) is the story of all the women named Karen who have figured in Lefcourt's love life. This is not so much a novel as a series of vignettes wrapped around a repeated theme.

Lefcourt has written for television and the movies in addition to his novels, and it shows. There's some snappy writing, some very funny one-liners and a lot of witty anecdotes here, but by Karen No. 6, one finds oneself checking to see just how many more Karens there are. Still, Lefcourt's Karen-pilgrimage is entertaining and frothy fare, and he maintains the lighthearted and self-deprecating tone that kissing and telling requires.


For Freddie Lee Johnson III, there is nothing funny about the war between the sexes. In A Man Finds His Way (One World, 352 pages, $23.95), Johnson brings us history professor Darius Collins, about whom the kindest thing to say is that there is much he does not get.

When the novel opens, he is having dinner with his girlfriend of six months. He thinks they're headed someplace special. But Darius has apparently missed a lot of signals: Marcy has something to say, too, and it's sorry, there's someone else. Darius is enraged. First his ex-wife, now Marcy. Women are cruel, fickle, demanding harpies and why don't they understand him and cherish him? Moreover, Darius is black and very sure his burden is compounded by race.

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