What to read: September fiction

From a surreal, carnal coming-of-age set on Coney Island to a wicked, gossipy story of the literary life, our critics pick the best books.

Published September 13, 2000 8:02AM (EDT)

The leaves haven't started falling yet, but reviewers across the country are already wading through piles of books -- and "fall preview" issues are lying pretty thick on the ground as well. We're not about to recommend any book to you unless we've actually read it first, and you'll find longer reviews of the major September releases in Salon Books throughout the month (so far, we like the Margaret Atwood, the Kazuo Ishiguro and the Michael Chabon). But there are plenty of less flashy titles to reach for if none of the big books strikes your fancy. According to publishing tradition, this is the month when more challenging fiction starts appearing in bookstores, but if some of our September picks are more serious than sunny, they'll richly reward everyone who reads them.

By Amram Ducovny
The Overlook Press, 320 pages

Think Isaac Bashevis Singer with an intermittent but unflappable hard-on -- and there you have Amram Ducovny's "Coney," a strangely beguiling coming-of-age story studded with fantastical forays into sexual mayhem. Harry Catzker, the novel's protagonist, idles away his 15th year roaming the streets and alleyways of Coney Island circa 1939: He turns a budding naturalist's eye on a pack of feral dogs, tracking their comings and goings and their curious infighting; he barrels down the boardwalk on his bicycle, racing his imaginary nemesis, a German liner captain whose ship lurks on the horizon; he engages the family's boarder, a Polish imigri and Yiddish poet named Aba, in gloriously poetic conversations up in the backyard cherry tree; and he gets beneath-the-boardwalk blow jobs from Schnozz the old penny arcade owner.

Whoa there -- what? Precisely. This debut novel by Ducovny, the father of "The X-Files" star David Duchovny and the author of 10 previous nonfiction works, seesaws between sweet, sepia-toned interludes from Harry's adolescence -- with some old-timey gangster intrigue thrown in for momentum -- and jostling episodes of carnal pandemonium that include a circus-freak orgy, Harry's deflowering at the hands of Fifi the Fat Lady and a wheelchair-bound crime boss and his dwarf henchman having sex with both ends of a prostitute while playing an invented game of cards on her back. Like Jerzy Kosinksi before him, Ducovny uses a child's imagination as a device to explore the nether region between the probable and the improbable. The result is a saucy and affecting fable of Jewish life in America, an alluringly lurid novel bursting with a Gogolesque coupling of tragedy and comedy and twinkling with the decadence of Coney Island, that playground of yore of American desire.

--Jonathan Miles

Norwegian Wood
By Haruki Murakami
Vintage, 296 pages

Haruki Murakami is best known in this country for his distinctive and surreal novels like "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "A Wild Sheep Chase." So it comes as no small surprise that the book that first earned him fame in his native Japan turns out to be a tender, straightforward coming of age story.

Published abroad in 1987 but only now translated and published here, "Norwegian Wood" introduces us to Toru Watanabe, a successful businessman who finds himself overwhelmed with emotion when he hears a muzak version of the Beatles classic on an airplane. As he swoons over the musical madeleine, he's transported back to his days as a university student in Tokyo in the late '60s and his anguished love for two women -- fragile, enigmatic Naoko and wealthy, elusive Midori.

Watanabe vividly recounts his conflicts and complications, including the pain of watching Naoko slip out of his grasp and into madness. Along the way, he only occasionally veers into the maudlin, preferring instead to pepper his recollections with unexpected, welcome flashes of humor. While skillfully chronicling his helpless regard for the women who change his life, he broadens the picture. Here are dead-on observations of the frivolities of youth -- the erotic escapades, the eccentric roommates, the pretentious multiple readings of "The Great Gatsby," the endless nights of drinking and flirting and playing guitar.

Watanabe's wry digressions only serve to make the impending disasters more believable -- when, until we are very old, are we more susceptible to suffering than when we are very young and very sure of ourselves? Watanabe is hip deep in tragedies -- his best friend commits suicide, Midori's father wastes away and dies -- but he boldly declares, "I've chosen to live." Like all true survivors, though, he carries his past like a scar -- it marks him, it's part of him, but it only hurts when he reopens the wound.

The awkward fumblings and lonely regrets of a romantic college student may not be unique, but Murakami has such a warm, unaffected style it's impossible not to be drawn in, and the setting -- the Far East during the Free Love era -- gives the novel an exotic shimmer. Like the song that haunts its hero, Murakami's tale is a melancholy memory of what was and what could have been, a deft combination of adult wisdom and youthful heart.

--Mary Elizabeth Williams

Lying Awake
By Mark Salzman
Knopf, 181 pages

It's rare these days to find Roman Catholic spirituality treated with the same straightforward, respectful sense of wonder as, say, Tibetan Buddhism, but "Lying Awake" does just that. The fifth novel by Mark Salzman, author of the acclaimed "Iron & Silk," this slim, spare, beautifully written book tells the story of a Carmelite nun facing an agonizing personal decision. Sister John of the Cross has a rich, mystical spiritual life that includes frequent visions and ecstasies, many of which inspire the poetry that has won her a small following and financed much-needed repairs to her tiny, cloistered order's monastery. But her visions are often preceded by blinding migraine headaches that leave her incapacitated, unable to participate fully in the rigorous life of her order. Should she follow her doctor's recommendation that she undergo surgery to treat an epileptic disorder that is causing the migraines? The surgery threatens to confirm her deepest fear: that her visions have been false -- not a sign of God's proximity but merely a symptom of illness.

With a matter-of-fact ease that doesn't exoticize Sister John's intense religiosity, Salzman conveys her thought processes: When her prioress orders to her to stop reading in her cell at night -- the others have noticed the light coming from under her door, and her wooziness during the day detracts from her presence in the community -- he writes: "Sister John's heart sank. Writing had become as important as prayer to her -- it was prayer -- but she also knew that the more perfectly a nun submitted to the will of the Superior, the more perfectly she submitted to the will of God. She directed her thoughts to her Innocent Spouse, who was executed for crimes he could not commit, and accepted her penance with a nod."

Salzman also shows the camaraderie and unexpected humor of the Los Angeles Carmelite cloister, within earshot of the freeway but worlds away, where Sister John lives a rigidly disciplined life with seven other nuns, each with a distinct personality. And he's just as good at drawing a picture of Sister John's unhappy childhood, through flashbacks to her life as Helen, an unloved girl abandoned by her mother to the care of weary, distant grandparents.

Sister John is a wonderfully appealing character, full of goodness but with real, human wounds, at times just as prone to bitterness and selfishness as anyone else. But perhaps Salzman's biggest accomplishment is in writing a novel that explores Christian faith from an almost anthropological distance but still makes palpable the emotions that draw people to religious life. "Lying Awake" makes us -- even, I'd bet, those for whom religion is a foreign country -- understand what's at stake in one woman's conflict between a mystical, transporting faith and a more prickly, mundane faith grounded in responsibility to others in the here and now.

--Maria Russo

Joe College
By Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's Press, 306 pages

Before I left my small everytown for college, my high school boyfriend would insist that the only reason I wanted to go to an Ivy League university was so that I could meet a guy who drove a Ferrari. Stupidly, I defended myself and my desire to attend a school with good academics. Yet that fall, seated in English class beside boarding school boys who ably discussed Faulkner novels I'd never heard of, I couldn't help wondering whether they really did drive $140,000 cars. Tom Perrotta, the author of "Election" and "The Wishbones," has written a smart, engaging novel about a New Jersey native trying to bridge the two worlds of Yale University and his hometown, where he helps his father drive the Roach Coach, a lunch truck. "Joe College" is funny, honest and a fabulous read, especially for anyone who's tried to fit in and let go -- and to figure out what parts of themselves to hold onto in the process. As Perrotta shows -- rich, poor, private- or public-schooled -- it's a universal identity crisis.

"Joe College" takes place during the early '80s, the years of Reagan, bloated capitalism and Hall & Oates. But unlike those wonderful John Hughes movies of the same era, in which Molly Ringwald is either the pretty, popular, wealthy girl in diamond earrings or the hard-working, dorky one from the wrong side of the tracks, Perrotta manages to see the educated elites and working-class folks as more than caricatures. And for the first time, for me anyway, the airbrushed '80s become a little bit smudged.

Danny works in the university cafeteria and from his dishwashing station he observes the difference between his townie co-workers and his prep school classmates, between himself and the hilariously right-on a cappella groups that serenade the diners. He lusts after girls who wear $5 vintage dresses and baggy sweaters and dream about Wallace Stevens, while his girlfriend Cindy from home, a secretary who didn't go to college, slips into tight designer jeans, bright new white sneakers and loads on the blue eye shadow. Her dream is to get a new car. During Danny's spring break he faces the Mafioso lunch truck bullies who threaten his father's business and his own life, but it's Cindy, surprising Danny with some bad news, who forces him to confront who he is and who he really wants to be. At one point, however, Danny admits that his life is like "a car with no brakes careening down a dangerous mountain road. Get in my way and I'll run you down."

Perrotta treats these people fairly -- no one is better or worse than anyone else, the "poor" kids don't come out on top in the end. You don't hate the rich ones. Even the elusive Jodie Foster, who attended Yale at the time and inspires gossip and lust in everyone, from Danny's Roach Coach customers to his Yalie friends, just fits. She's part of the landscape and no more special than Danny's surly, privileged friend Max, who neglects his classes to study the history of assassinations, or Lorelei, the hot New Haven cafeteria co-worker whose "greaser" brothers beat a Yalie's face in when she sleeps with him. Every character, like "Joe College" itself, is lovable, resonant and memorable.

--Suzy Hansen

Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing
By David Leavitt
Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages

There's something admirably gutsy about a writer breaking the literary fourth wall and allowing himself to become a character. Too often, however, the concept outshines the execution. Authors treat their fictionalized stand-ins too gently, or worse, turn them into embarrassing manifestations of their darkest neuroses. How refreshing, then, to discover a protagonist who bears a strong resemblance to his creator and is neither a saint nor a prick. And what a wicked pleasure to read a quasi-memoir so full of bittersweet remembrance and delectable literary dish.

The story will be familiar to anyone versed in the author's own career -- a young Ivy Leaguer with as much moxie as talent becomes the writing world's flavor of the week after publishing the first gay-themed story in a prestigious weekly. But as he air-kisses his way through the ranks of Manhattan publishing during the Reagan era, Martin Bauman embarks on a bumpy path in which success alternates with humiliating failure. He also falls in and out of friendships and rivalries, awakens to the growing AIDS crisis, and romances fellow writer Eli Aronson. Through it all, he's dogged by the specter of his irascible mentor, the awe- and loathing-inspiring Stanley Flint, and by the fear he'll fulfill Flint's grim prophecy: that Martin's need to please will doom him to hackdom.

Leavitt, whose own works, "Family Dancing" and "The Lost Language of Cranes," earned him early acclaim, allows his alter ego to be both painfully aware of his youthful weaknesses and amused by them as well. Martin is a bit of a stiff, throwing around 50-cent vocabulary words and Cliffs Notes literary allusions, but he's also observant, ambitious and unapologetically giddy at his heady proximity to the heavyweights of the publishing scene. Leavitt offers the right amount of '80s glitter, with characters and events so thinly disguised that even the most casual follower of literary gossip will be able to chortle in satisfied recognition.

While the recollections of an insular world nearly 20 years past may have particular resonance for the cosmopolitan literati (when was the last time a roman ` clef seemed so likely to inspire eyebrow raising among the Hamptons set?), it's Leavitt's willingness to tweak himself as much as anyone else, and his gift for making his characters complicated and intriguing, no matter what degree of real life familiarity they inspire, that makes "Martin Bauman" shine. Martin may be too "eager to pounce on a sure thing" to fulfill his creative destiny, but Leavitt has the spark and gumption of a writer just hitting his stride.

--Mary Elizabeth Williams

Ice Age
By Robert Anderson
University of Georgia Press, 200 pages

"Deft" is one of those adjectives you frequently see bandied about in blurbs on the back of short story collections, and with good reason: it's vital that short fiction have that blend of skill and elegance. A novel can be a looser, rangy thing, and a novelist can ease up and paint big broad strokes for pages at a time, while the limitations of the form mean that a short story writer must wield a finer brush. The problem with short fiction, though, for a committed novel-lover like myself, is the almost claustrophobic feeling all those teeny brushstrokes can create. For me, finding a story collection like Robert Anderson's "Ice Age" was like rounding a corner in a museum and coming upon a roomful of Edward Hoppers. I was filled with a delightfully alternating current of strangeness and familiarity, and knew I was in the hands of an artist whose intelligence and yes, deftness, thrilled me.

The 10 more-than-slightly absurd stories that make up "Ice Age" range all over the globe in setting, from New York in the 1960s to Rome, to Spain, Texas, Los Angeles and a Gulf War field hospital, and Anderson mixes both wholly created characters and familiar figures from the real world. Thus we are plunked into the mind of Norman Mailer on the legendary night he stabbed his wife, Adele. Or we spend a lonely evening in a hotel suite in Rome with Leonard Bernstein while he ponders a message sent to him by a saint. Or ride with the recently dead Jimi Hendrix on his journey to the underworld of L.A. It is a testament to Anderson's skill that these real people become true characters in his work, not caricatures. Mailer has certainly spent a lifetime self-advertising and has never seemed in need of an agency to get the job done, but filtered though Anderson's sensibility -- a voice that can describe a West Coast hipster's accent as "a variation on that early hour jazz DJ who utters 'Brubeck' with a stuttered lick like brush against drumhide" -- the posturing blowhard becomes understandably human. And when Anderson turns away from the celebrities to write about a Texas family who bring in extra cash by running a potter's field in their backyard, he carries with him that same knowing surety that makes the absurd seem like the everyday.

Not everything in "Ice Age" works -- a long monologue by a low-level mobster's wife seems jarringly contrived -- but such moments are exceptions in what is an otherwise exceptional debut.

--Edward Neuert

Assorted Fire Events
By David Means
Context, 182 pages

Just about halfway through this collection of pristine stories, David Means begins a new one by writing, "I don't want anyone to die in my stories anymore." The story that follows, "What I Hope For," no more than a page and a half long, describes a nameless couple enjoying an idyll at a bed and breakfast, potpourri and all. It's a bit dull, and yet a fairly funny joke, for Means is proving to his readers that death and grief are his beat, what he does best. Simple happiness doesn't bring out the best in him. If his stories leave us in a state of melancholy, feeling the slightly sweet ache of wounds that will never heal, who are we to complain that they lack uplift?

A few of the stories here experiment with form -- a man's mind flickers back and forth between the adulterous affair he's consummating and memories of his brother's death by drowning; various endings are offered for the fate of a bereaved businessman who stumbles down some rural train tracks and into the clutches of a gang of violent outcasts; a series of paragraphs illustrates the beauty and horror of fire -- but none of these stories are cryptic, or even hard to follow. Clarity, in addition to an abiding preoccupation with catastrophic loss, is a signal trait of Mean's fiction. When he abandons the paved paths of storytelling, it's always to track down the nature and workings of emotion. Wherever he follows it, this is the kind of moment he seeks: "You drive up to it stunned and bent over with anguish at the very central fact that what was once around your life -- objects of so-called sentimental attachment -- is now ash."

A builder barely registers his own complicity in a shoddy construction that costs a little girl her life, while her mother suffers unearned guilt. The brief disappearance of a friend reminds a young man of a dead schoolmate he might have been kind to, but instead tormented. A hungry homeless man intrudes on a wedding that celebrates the launch of a doomed marriage. A widow discourages a suitor by showing him a videotape of herself making love to her husband. A man who collects memories of "pure gestures" runs over a movie camera when he learns that the particularly fine gesture he just witnessed has in fact been faked. Despite their contemporary setting, Means' stories have an elemental quality with echoes (some more explicit than others) of Greek myth and tragedy. Like those ancient works, they're not comforting in any obvious way, but to the patient, attentive reader they bring a deep, enriching sense of the gravity of life.

--Laura Miller

Worship of the Common Heart: New and Selected Stories
By Patricia Henley
MacMurray & Beck, 357 pages

Many of the 19 stories in Patricia Henley's collection "Worship of the Common Heart" take place in the isolated parts of the Western United States or small towns of the Midwest, where a transient stranger or a wandering hired hand can shake up people's lives almost as much as birth or death. It is in these stories that Henley is in her glory: stripped of distracting outside influences, she can tear open the chests of her characters and hang their insides out to dry in the wind. In the simplest places, populated by people with simple lifestyles, Henley can expose the tumult and complexity within.

Henley, author of "Hummingbird House," a National Book Award finalist, wrote the stories in this collection over the course of 20 years, but the themes and the stark rendering of pain and beauty emanate from the same place, in a voice, uniquely Henley's, that speaks through her strong, vibrant characters. Her people live where down-and-out mothers drink gin out of old jelly jars and smoke Virginia Slims, where families clash, divide and send young children to relatives' homes and orphanages, where women work the land and lay naked and free in the sun after a day's toil, and where the past and the present coexist bittersweetly in a warm, webby alcove of the mind.

Henley's characters have names like Celestial, Birch and Rein. Some are nuns, some fruit pickers and some housewives. They've suffered difficult childhoods, years of disappointment and hard luck in love. Their men, their mothers or their fathers are usually absent, either in body or spirit. Often, Henley's depictions of women, especially young women, recall those of Margaret Atwood; her subtle observations, and their sly intents, linger. In "Sun Damage," Hannah forces her young daughter Meg to remain in the room every time Rex, the diaper deliverer, stops by -- presumably to prevent anything scandalous from happening. Meg observes Hannah "put on a gold cross pendant that slipped perilously between her breasts. You would never notice Hannah's modest neckline of her modest blouse if not for that cross." Henley's ability to show how religion, desire, right, wrong, prudence and pleasure can be welded together within the careful words of two natural, ambling sentences is one of her most thrilling talents. She can effortlessly move between past and present, memory and reality, without disturbing the momentum of the story. Instead, she raises the stakes.

When Henley completes a story, a scene, even a paragraph, she leaves her readers slightly stung, but grateful at the gift of an unvarnished truth. By the end of "Worship of the Common Heart" doesn't feel like separate stories. It feels as though you've read a satisfying novel, one that lovingly lays bare the story of an aged, weather-worn but still beating heart.

--Suzy Hansen

The Sugar Island
By Ivonne Lamazares
Houghton Mifflin, 205 pages

This debut novel by Cuban-born Lamazares paints a haunting, vivid yet elliptical picture of life on the island in the wake of the revolution. It's the late '60s and early '70s, and the shadow of the unknown world beyond barricaded Cuba looms large for Lamazares' heroine, Tanya. Her unhappy, erratic, desperate mother joins the rebel guerrilleras, returns, attempts a sea escape and eventually is taken away by the party for "rehabilitation," leaving Tanya and her brother Emanuel to live in Havana with an old aunt. Defeated but still defiant, Mama rejoins the family and is assigned to work in a matchstick factory. By night, she is pulled into a neighbor's Santerma rituals, and Tanya watches with growing horror as her mother slips ever farther away while grave, inchoate dangers seem to loom everywhere.

Full of well-chosen details and an understated emotionalism, "The Sugar Island" economically conveys a sense of life in Cuba: the deprivations, the bizarre juxtapositions of party rhetoric, Catholic rituals and voodoo, the small victories of tenacious Cubans determined to hold fast to their dignity and traditions.

But Lamazares' central subject is really Tanya's growing estrangement from her mother and the toll their fraught relationship takes on her as she grows to womanhood. The more Tanya learns of her mother's slippery heart, the less she trusts that Fidel's revolution is the sole cause of their misery. And yet the outward signs of the revolution's corruption and failure are obvious. Eventually, Tanya is forced to choose between a perilous raft escape to Miami with her mother or a life in Cuba, left behind and watching her options crumble around her. Like the rest of the novel, what happens to Tanya in the end may seem to be full of the tragic ironies that are the lot of the Cuban-born, but Lamazares' subtle intelligence manages to wrest imaginative possibilities out of even the most dire situations.

--Maria Russo

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