Fatty, parenthood, rebirth, hurricanes

Novels of July

July 25, 2004|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

A stunning tour de force, Jerry Stahl's I, Fatty (Bloomsbury, 256 pages, $23.95) manages to get inside the capacious head of Roscoe Arbuckle, the silent film star who died 70 years ago, and who was once universally adored for his rambunctious comic talent. Adopting the wisecracking tone of a hardened vaudevillian who turns himself into Hollywood's most unlikely matinee idol, Stahl does such a convincing job of creating the eponymous narrator that you almost think Fatty dictated the novel from heaven's larder.

"Every Baby Ruth a toothache in a fancy wrapper," the hero laments as he tells of his lifelong struggle to resist life's sweetest temptations -- from showgirls to strawberry shakes -- and his doomed effort to uncover the inner waif lurking under his bulk. Bad genes and deep cravings plague him even as a child. "I was 150 pounds and five-foot-five before I was nine. People stared."

But the silent screen loves him as a grinning young star of slapstick -- his popularity was second only to Charlie Chaplin's -- and life is good until he pushes his luck and parties too long in the company of shady friends. Stahl's Arbuckle eloquently pleads his innocence after he is accused of causing a young woman's death during an orgiastic bash in a San Francisco hotel. In real life, the star was acquitted of all charges, but this novel goes further, portraying him as a trusting victim of an elaborate frame-up.

Guilty or innocent, Fatty is a fascinating -- and even endearing -- character in Stahl's narrative, a man desperate for approval but ashamed of who he is and bewildered by the bitter aftertaste that seems to attend every feast of good fortune. But there are lots of laughs as well as tears as Arbuckle stumbles from fame to disgrace. For a star of silent movies, he has a wonderful way with words, jokingly blaming his impotence on his honeymoon to "a weakened nuptial muscle" and dismissing most movies as works "made by hacks and peddled to idiots."

Fatty wouldn't recognize the San Francisco that provides the setting for Stacey D'Erasmo's A Seahorse Year (Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $24). In his day, it was a bastion of strict moral order, but its current liberality allows D'Erasmo to weave a tale around the kind of unconventional family that now thrives there. The mother is a lesbian, the sperm-donor father a gay dancer turned accountant, the child is a rebellious heterosexual male, and the mother's lover rounds out the picture as a secondary maternal influence.

But there is trouble in this trendy domestic circle. The son, Christopher, is suffering from an acute mental illness that none of his three parental figures can understand. When he runs away from home, he undermines the delicate balance of the family and makes everyone around him question the meaning of love and the demands of parenting.

With compassion and understanding, D'Erasmo shows that in the brave new world of domestic diversity there are no easy answers. The more her characters struggle to help Christopher survive adolescence, the more they realize that raising children involves certain universal problems that are the same no matter how the family arranges itself. As her novel eloquently demonstrates, a parent is a parent -- gay or straight -- and every domestic circle must invent itself as though from scratch.

The Southern family saga is a staple of American fiction, but Helen Scully's In the Hope of Rising Again (Penguin, 312 pages, $23.95) stands out because of the intimate way in which it brings to life its indomitable heroine, Regina Morrow. The daughter of an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, and the wife of an ambitious but unstable businessman, Regina is a bewildered new bride when the novel opens in the 1920s. By the time the Depression hits, she is a mother with two daughters, her husband is gone, and her money is running out.

It is fascinating to watch how the proud Regina finds ways to survive in a world that seems determined to take everything she has worked hard to get. As the title of the novel suggests, she simply will not surrender the hope of a better life in the old, fallen South.

To her surprise, and the reader's, she discovers that poverty has a liberating effect on the belles of the past -- herself included -- allowing them to abandon "the predictability of wife and motherhood." In the end, this is a novel about the unmaking of a belle and her emergence as a modern woman. As such, it is an engrossing portrait of a dying society on the verge of rebirth.

At the opposite end of the country -- on Cape Cod -- a summer cottage provides the setting for the 12 interconnected stories in Alice Hoffman's Blackbird House (Doubleday, 240 pages, $19.95). Spanning two centuries, the book traces the histories of the unusual inhabitants of the cottage -- from a fisherman in the days of sailing ships to hippies and even a Holocaust survivor.

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