Stephanie Zacharek reviews David Haynes' novel "Heathens".

Published May 2, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

David Haynes' strong suit is his willingness to let 'er rip. The characters in his third novel never quite behave the way you expect them to, and that's what is delightful about it. Political correctness, racial victimology, rigid stereotypes -- neither Haynes nor his characters want anything to do with that stuff. What's most refreshing is that Haynes' crew of black and white characters never pretend not to notice their differences -- their way of enjoying one another is to give each other holy hell whenever it's called for.

There's respectable Marcus, a black, elementary school teacher whose classes full of discouraged, disadvantaged children wreak havoc on his nerves and on his heart. He lives for the time he spends with his 12-year-old son, Ali, and Ali's mother, LaDonna, Marcus' longtime girlfriend. LaDonna is serving a jail term for selling a house she didn't quite own to a group of Japanese businessmen. While she's incarcerated, Verda, Marcus' mother -- whose phobias include Mormons and homosexuals -- plots to wrest Marcus from the grasp of LaDonna, whom she thinks unsuitable for her son.

Their assortment of off-kilter neighbors and friends includes a Pentecostal sexpot with enormous knockers (her diary includes entries like "Last night: two times. Praise be.") and a brilliant, 12-year-old Vietnamese adoptee who's sweet as sugar around her adoptive mother but who runs a crap game out of a neighbor's house. (When Marcus admonishes her for using the pidgin English she sometimes affects, she shoots back, "Big American G.I. like all us girl speak funny ha ha. Do naughty naughty boom boom.")

"Heathens" doesn't offer much in the way of narrative, but what really matters are the characters, each of whom tells part of the story from his or her point of view and keeps it spinning. Actually, their voices are the story: When Ali describes his school principal as "a white man who is one of those white men who is all the same color. He is the color of Cheerios," we know exactly what he means -- and like him, we think, "Yuck!"

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------