Declining way of life in `Dogtown'

satire in `Diviners'

magical realism in `Painted Drum'

New Fiction

September 18, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Last Days of Dogtown

By Anita Diamant. Scribner. 264 pages.

Nothing is sadder than the death of a way of life. On the Massachusetts coast lies a farming village known as Dogtown, which, even in the early 1800s of Diamant's superb historical novel has become a shadow town, occupied only by those without the money to leave for better opportunities in nearby urbanized Gloucester. Judy Rhines lives in an abandoned cottage in the woods, ostracized after taking in her dying lover - the freed slave, Cornelius Finson. Mrs. Stanley runs a house of ill repute with her "girls," Molly and Sally, and pimp John Stanwood. Ruth, another freed slave, works as a stonemason, dressed like a man; she had come to Dogtown looking for information on her mother, a murdered slave, but the information she learns affords her no peace. One by one, the inhabitants of Dogtown drift away or die - for some, death at home; for others, death and delirium at the Gloucester workhouse. Rhines, the novel's touchstone, who is known for her herbal remedies and considered by many to be a witch, earns respectability in Gloucester as a lady's companion to the dying wife of a judge, only to find herself an outcast again for her compassion toward her adored Cornelius. Throughout, there are the dogs that give some comfort to the long, slow dying of both populace and town. It is a place killed not so much by the shift from agrarian to urban life as from a lack of tolerance: Dogtown cannot keep pace with the changing mores of its time. With its cast of thoroughly engaging characters, Diamant's gripping tale is so bittersweet and haunting as to make one weep.

The Diviners

By Rick Moody. Little, Brown. 492 pages.

There's nothing like the making of a movie. Ordinary individuals find themselves swept up its wake: production assistants, bicycle messengers, writers, family members, actors, agents, Sikh cabdrivers, publicists. And The Diviners will be one hell of a movie: an epic so grand, it will, in fact, be a TV miniseries. It is the story of the Mongol hordes and their magic skill of divining (finding water). It is a story that sweeps across Asia, Africa, Europe and, finally, the New World. It is a story that embraces all cultures, all religion. It is a surefire hit. There's just one problem: The Diviners is a joke, conceived by two romantically entangled employees of an independent production company. No screenplay exists. But when the spoof treatment is delivered to the wrong address, The Diviners begins to take on a life of its own, and soon all of Hollywood is scrambling for a piece of the action. At the epicenter is Vanessa Meandro, the independent producer who is determined to bring The Diviners to a TV set everywhere. Moody's scathing expose of the entertainment industry is also a cutting commentary on pop culture, a hilarious satire that captures a cross-section of American stereotypes.

The Painted Drum

By Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins. 288 pages.

Erdrich continues her Objibwe series in this 10th novel of the tribe with the theft of a ceremonial drum that holds both fascination and sadness in its depths. Faye Travers is a troubled antiquities appraiser whose complex emotional life leads her on a path toward the sound of the drum that only she hears - a metaphoric and literal sound of ancestry vividly evoked in Erdrich's deft magical realist style. The drum, returned, Faye believes, to its rightful place, touches everyone near it. Erdrich delves into the multigenerational ground covered in her earlier novel Tracks. Ancestors impact the lives of the living and it is here that Erdrich's novel is strongest - in outlining the stories of the past, of women who threw themselves to the wolves, of passionate sacrifices for love of partner, parent, child, tribe and the unseen world of spirits. The painted drum sounds throughout this novel, but there are concomitant beats of equal power: the wings of ravens, the hearts of wolves, the breath of women and men aching for redemption, ghostly children traipsing through the wood. Although not Erdrich's strongest work, it is perhaps her most gloriously lyrical and harshly beautiful, etching as it does the complications of Native American life, past and present.

Out of Season

By Robert Bausch. Harcourt. 384 pages.

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