Bemrose, Oates, Vickers, Theroux

January Fiction

January 11, 2004|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Except for Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelists are lucky to get a footnote's worth of attention in the American press. It's a shame that so many good writers of English are routinely treated on this side of the border as though they were spinning tall tales in Latin at an Arctic outpost.

John Bemrose's The Island Walkers (Metropolitan Books, 464 pages, $25) is set in his native Ontario, but the river town with its textile mills and insular working-class neighborhoods could be any aging industrial town in Michigan, Ohio or New England. If you're the sort of reader who feels at home in Richard Russo's Empire Falls, Bemrose's Ontario will strike a deep, resonant chord.

Like Russo, Bemrose has a talent for capturing the sad lyricism of ordinary lives in overlooked places. His Canadians are fascinating precisely because they are out of the mainstream. Peering into the family dramas of the old mill town is like rummaging through the attic of a long-lost relative. It's a revelation to find so many remnants of a rich life hidden away.

The focus of the narrative is middle-aged millworker Alf Walker and his family. Life has beaten them down and seems ready to strike a few more blows against them, but they are a resilient bunch and struggle valiantly to rise above the falling tide of the town's prosperity. Alf and his wife search for love in and out of their marriage, their three teen-age children dream of moving to a better place, and the outside world refuses to give them a break.

Their lives, in other words, are a lot like those of many Americans trapped in small towns where opportunities are few and disappointments many.

What keeps the story from becoming a dismal chronicle of decline is Bemrose's poetic touch, which finds beauty in obscure corners and grandeur in small victories.

Joyce Carol Oates can no doubt sympathize with Canadian novelists who find their works ignored in America. A teacher in Ontario for most of the 1970s, Oates might have found it difficult to sustain her own prolific career if she had renounced her U.S. citizenship and stayed in Canada. Instead, she came home and has been turning out a novel or more a year for the last 25 years. Her latest is a shocker with a deliberately provocative title -- Rape: A Love Story (Carroll & Graf, 128 pages, $16).

It's set in the border town of Niagara Falls, where a mother and daughter are brutally raped by a gang of thugs. Though the attack is bad enough, its evil is compounded by the nightmarish trial that soon follows. Unfortunately, it's a common fate for rape victims to be violated twice -- first by the rapist, then by a judicial system that puts the victim on trial. Oates confronts this outrage with a searing portrait of corrupt and amoral officials who care more about their petty careers than any standard of justice. Her short novel is compelling and honest.

The British author Salley Vickers brings God to rural England in her third novel, the charming Mr. Golightly's Holiday (Farrar Straus, 368 pages, $24). The author of an international best seller published years ago, Mr. Golightly takes his holiday in a Devonshire village, where the locals amuse him with their eccentricities, and where he tries to begin work on a new book.

As the reader soon discovers, the engaging Mr. Golightly is none other than the Almighty in the form of an ordinary but dapper gent looking for fresh inspiration. His masterpiece -- the Bible -- is badly in need of a sequel, but the old boy has been too busy to write it. In due time, the sea air and the friendly villagers in Devon work their magic on the weary Lord and help Him reformulate the old best seller's message of peace and love.

With a wonderfully wry sense of humor, Vickers makes her god a very fallible character who doesn't quite understand the full complexity of the Creation.

It's a clever idea, and she makes it work so well that Mr. Golightly seems almost believable as a slightly clueless deity.

David Grossman's Someone to Run With (Farrar Straus, 352 pages $25) is set in the Holy Land, but its tough cast of street characters seems anything but holy.

Instead of giving readers a postcard view of modern Israel, Grossman shows them the gritty underside, where drugs and music and sex are much more important concerns than politics and war.

His story is perhaps more intricate than it needs to be, involving numerous characters and a long, complicated quest for the missing owner of a lost dog.

But the plot isn't as important as the fictional tour of Israel's vibrant street culture. Grossman makes modern Jerusalem seem like Chicago in the 1920s, with sinister gangsters and colorful runaways. At his best, the novelist does what many great writers do -- he reveals a new world whose existence is half-real and half-imaginary, and completely plausible.

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