A road trip, tigers, lost love, Kansas City

Four April Novels

April 27, 2003|By Jody Jaffe | By Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

The MacArthur people knew what they were doing when they gave Suzan-Lori Parks a $500,000 genius grant. She won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog / Underdog, Spike Lee directed her film Girl 6, she's writing a screenplay for Oprah and a musical for Disney. Now comes her first novel, with an initial print run of 100,000.

Is there anything this woman can't do? Parks' Getting Mother's Body (Random House, 272 pages, $23.95) is about as good a book as I've read in years. It's got everything -- humor, poignancy, vivid characters, evocative writing, a strong, driving plot and a fresh approach to storytelling.

Parks embraces the writing adage "show don't tell" and moves her story along with a series of beautifully crafted first-person monologues. She paints each character with sure, bold strokes and uses detail like a great artist uses line and shading. And she's so generous to her characters -- even the creepy ones -- you end up, if not liking them, at least feeling sympathy.

It's 1963 and Billy Beede is poor, black, 16 and pregnant by a smooth-talking traveling coffin salesman. He's promised to marry her, but when she shows up at his house for the wedding, she finds his wife and kids there. She goes back to Lincoln, Texas, where she's been living with her aunt and uncle since her scam-artist mother, Willa Mae, died six years ago.

Billy wants an abortion, but doesn't have the money. When a letter arrives telling her to come to Arizona to get her mother's body before her grave is paved over into a parking lot, she sees a way to fund the abortion. Family legend has it that Willa Mae was buried with a diamond ring and pearls. So Billy heads out with her aunt, uncle and cousin, thinking she's only after her mother's jewels. Getting Mother's Body is a crazy road trip of a book in which Billy discovers the real meaning of what Willa Mae used to call "the hole" inside people.

A woman shares her bed with a tiger. That's odd. The tiger rubs the woman's back for his pleasure in the middle of a circus act. Odder still. But nowhere near as odd as the woman's pragmatic reaction: She simply switches from a black to a white leather outfit so the audience won't see the tell-tale signs of the tiger's pleasure.

As Mark Twain said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." And that's a problem with Robert Hough's The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Atlantic Monthly Press, 448 pages, $24). This is the kind of book that screams for a writer like Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) who turned meticulous research into a compelling story not only about a little horse who could run, but also a time and place.

Still, a fictionalized account of the world's greatest female tiger trainer is better than no account at all. What could be more interesting than an orphan who escapes an insane asylum, joins the circus as a hoochie-koochie dancer, discovers a love for big cats and becomes one of Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey's biggest stars?

According to Hough, Mabel Stark was a feisty, insanely courageous sprite of a woman (she was only 5 feet tall) who trained tigers into her 70s. Hough packs his sprawling novel with fascinating details that leave you wondering what's true and what's imagination.

The biggest problem with the book, however, comes when Mabel loses the two greatest loves of her life. Up till that point, she's told the reader everything in intricate and intimate detail, including far too many pages about the effects of dysentery. Suddenly, she turns laconic. Hough is probably trying to make the point that the events are too painful for her to talk about. But it doesn't work. Hough's Mabel Stark was never one to shy away from anything -- be it a tiger or the hurt in her life.

Isabel Green, the heroine of Roxana Robinson's Sweetwater (Random House, 319 pages, $24.95), is trying to move on after the death of her beloved husband, Michael. And, at first, she seems to be doing a good job of it. We meet her as she and her second husband, Paul, arrive at his family's idyllic Adirondack compound for a two-week vacation. But Isabel is still haunted by Michael, a manic-depressive with whom she had 20 grand and tumultuous years, and is beginning to doubt whether she loves Paul.

Sweetwater shifts back and forth from the Michael days to the Adirondack vacation, which begins to unravel rapidly when Isabel meets Whit, Paul's brother. Whit, it turns out, is the man Isabel was searching for when she settled on Paul. Robinson layers Sweetwater with rich detail and strikingly evocative passages, but her strong prose can't disguise the story's contrivance. The brothers' rivalry is unconvincing, and Robinson can't make the ecological themes -- Isabel is an environmental advocate -- mesh with the psychological ones.

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