What to read in October

Hunting a Tasmanian tiger, denouncing the '60s generation, loving Graham Greene and unveiling family secrets in the best fall fiction.

Published October 23, 2000 8:19AM (EDT)

We confess: This month we found ourselves slogging through a lot of bad books in order to bring back the handful of trophies we offer you here. There were lackluster short story collections, novels with no plots, novels with preposterous plots, novels with irritating narrators and novels that just didn't hang together. But enough complaining because, dear readers, we filter out the dreck so that you don't have to.

Instead, we urge you to spend your ripening fall evenings wisely -- on Julia Leigh's tough-minded story of a professional hunter tracking the last Tasmanian tiger into the troubling shadows of his own mind, or on Michel Houellebecq's perverse, corrosive fictional indictment of contemporary hedonism, or on Nomi Eve's lush family saga or on any of the other great books listed below.

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The Hunter
By Julia Leigh
Four Walls Eight Windows, 176 pages

On the basis of this slim and astringent first novel, Australian Julia Leigh, 30, is being hailed as the antipodal Annie Proulx. It's easy to see why: Leigh writes the same kind of wintry, even brittle sentences as Proulx; she vivifies her cool, rugged landscapes with tart descriptions of natural arcana; and she gives scant attention to the more tender elements of her characters' serrated lives, choosing instead to fling them into the pits she creates and then chart, with a kind of forensic detachment, their efforts to claw their way out.

Leigh's protagonist, in fact, doesn't even merit the gentle favor of a name. "M," as Leigh calls him, is a professional hunter who's been dispatched to a remote corner of the Tasmanian plateau to kill the last remaining thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger thought extinct since 1936. One female is alleged to still exist, and M's employer, a shadowy biotech company, wants it dead. (An unfortunate implausibility, but we'll get to that later.) Following the trail blazed by a naturalist who disappeared on the plateau, M establishes his base camp at the home of the naturalist's grief-wrecked wife, Lucy, and their two unruly children. From there he makes weekly forays into the bush, immersing himself so deeply in the thylacine's life that after a while he fears he himself is being hunted. And in a way he is: M, who's made disassociating himself from people his life's main tenet, finds himself being drawn further and further into the lives of Lucy and her children, hunted by his own humanity -- prey, like the thylacine, to his very instincts.

Leigh's debut resonates with ambitious echoes -- she counts "Moby Dick," for instance, as an inspiration -- and almost lives up to them. So much so, in fact, that you want to excuse the novel for its chief shortcoming: namely, the improbably nefarious roots of M's mission. Leigh tries to tiptoe around that pothole, but it's a doozy, and mustering up the "willing suspension of disbelief," as Coleridge famously put it, requires a bit of readerly exertion. But Leigh's stern, bristly prose is more than reward for that effort; her icy talent warrants heralding far beyond the antipodes.

-- Jonathan Miles

The Elementary Particles
By Michel Houellebecq, Frank Wynne trans.
Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages

Michel Houellebecq's jeremiad of a novel, the notorious near winner of this year's Prix de Goncourt, is the story of two half-brothers, children of the '60s, permanently screwed up by their parents' quest for self-fulfillment -- and by teen magazines, globalization, miniskirts, the Rolling Stones, the human potential movement, the cult of the body beautiful, New Age communes-turned-corporations, African dance classes, no-fault divorce, holistic medicine and every other artifact of the Generation Moi that Houellebecq manages to squeeze under his burning satirical lens.

Abandoned as a baby by his communard mother and Buddhist father, Michel grows up asexual, introverted and intellectually precocious. After the end of his one (platonic, teenage) romance and the death of the grandmother who raised him, Michel devotes the rest of his life (when he isn't debilitatingly depressed) to theoretical biophysics -- ultimately, to developing a race of clones, free of human misery and desire, who will render mankind obsolete and take over the world.

Bruno, Michel's half-brother, has an even lonelier childhood, spent largely at a "progressive" boarding school (where he is literally made to eat shit) and permissive hippie campsites, where his mother hopes he'll get over his "hangups about sex." Easier said than done for Bruno, who learns early that the sexual revolution is in fact a war of all against all -- and that he is bound to be one of the majority, i.e. the losers. Fat, balding, charmless, bitter and desperate for love, he grows up unable to attract anyone less obviously pathetic than he is. Quietly fired from his job as a schoolteacher for exposing himself to a student (she bursts out laughing); divorced from a wife (and son) he despises; addicted to sex clubs, whores and bourbon, Bruno works as a civil servant by day and by night vents his bile in reactionary, mostly unpublished articles and poems on "the suicide of the West." What brings these stunted lives to crisis, and finally to grief, is the inability of either man to love when love is finally offered to him -- an inability that Houellebecq traces, with parodic pseudoscientism ("A subtle but definitive change had occurred in Western society during 1974 and 1975"), to postwar cultural and economic trends.

French and British critics have compared Houellebecq to Balzac, i.e. they have no idea what to make of him; it shows, in part, how badly our own best recent fiction has exported. American readers, accustomed to radical realism on a big scale, may be less impressed by the size of Houellebecq's canvas than by the small, sad details that animate it. "The Elementary Particles" is grotesque and fantastical, full of loony physics, half-baked history and sociobiology, bad verse and sputtering misanthropy. It is also very funny, and sharply observed; but what makes it great satire, I think, is its childlike capacity for disappointment. Houellebecq may despair of love in a free market, but he takes love more seriously, as an artistic problem and a fact about the world, than most polite novelists would dare to do; when he brings his sweeping indignation to bear on one memory, one moment when things seemed about to turn out all right for his characters, and didn't, his compassion can blow you away.

-- Lorin Stein

Loving Graham Greene
By Gloria Emerson
Random House, 176 pages

Molly Benson, the protagonist in veteran foreign correspondent Gloria Emerson's first novel, is a well-meaning, dotty, liberal heiress who lives in genteel squalor in tony Princeton, N.J. Molly spends her inheritance on a small foundation, through which she travels to third world countries to help worthy individuals. She's driven by a desire to live out the ideals of her hero, novelist Graham Greene, with whom she carried on a polite correspondence following a single meeting, as well as to honor her brother, a foreign correspondent who was killed in Central America.

Upon Greene's death, the doubly bereaved Molly decides to travel to war-torn Algeria. Her plan is to find persecuted writers and arrange for bodyguards for them, and off she goes, accompanied by her best friend, Bertie, and Toby, a fleshy, voluble, ineffectual British graduate student. (The two women think bringing a man along would be a good idea, and Toby is the best they can come up with.) Needless to say, once they arrive things go haywire almost immediately. They have overestimated the likelihood of two inexperienced Western women accomplishing anything in an Arab country and underestimated the seriousness of the civil war, which places them in grave danger and renders utterly laughable Molly and Bertie's desire to make a dent in the suffering around them.

If all this sounds too heavy, rest assured that the vessel for these serious themes is a charming one. Emerson -- whose "Winners & Losers," a nonfiction book about the Vietnam War and its effect on Americans, won a National Book Award in 1978 -- has a light touch. The novel's warmhearted, forgiving quality softens the harsh light it shines on the dangerous naiveté of the self-serving Molly and her cohorts. It's funny, too, full of arch satire of do-gooders and do-nothings alike. In its grasp of the places where world politics and drawing-room politics meet and the folly of individual Americans who try to enact their political and humanitarian ideals overseas, "Loving Graham Greene" is like a delicious cross between Dawn Powell and Martha Gellhorn.

-- Maria Russo

Don't Tell Anyone
By Frederick Busch
W.W. Norton, 320 pages

"I am my own secret now ... my darkest, best-held secret." So said a fictionalized Herman Melville, deep in the long silence at the end of his life, as he is depicted in Frederick Busch's haunting novel "The Night Inspector," published just last year. The many characters in "Don't Tell Anyone," Busch's new collection of 16 stories and a novella, are just as fully engaged, as the book's title suggests, in the quiet containment of truth.

Busch has shifted scenes from the shadowy wharves and gaslit bordellos of Melville's Manhattan to 20th century New York state, upriver from the big city, predominantly in and around what one character calls "what's left of Dutchess County." Here live people like Bob, the narrator of "Bob's Your Uncle," who shuttles every workday between his office in Manhattan and, just up the Henry Hudson Parkway, a home life that can be changed in an instant by the revelation of one long-dormant piece of information. The emotionally disturbed son of an old friend of Bob's wife -- a married woman with whom Bob long ago had a secret and profoundly affecting fling -- suddenly appears on his doorstep. Before long, the energy of the boy's imploding family, a force that has propelled him to seek refuge with his "uncle" Bob, will strip away the wrapping on Bob's old secret adultery and send his marriage over the cliff.

There's as much adultery and denial going on in the Hudson River towns of Busch's bittersweet stories as ever was found in Cheever country, just slightly downriver and 20 years further removed in time. And like Cheever, Busch is an immensely intelligent and insightful writer. His dry sense of humor shows itself when a character describes a moment of awkward praise from his father: "He smiled at me as if I had done something noteworthy. That was why he was such a good junior high school principal. He discovered about eleven times a day that people were commendable, and they knew he thought so."

Melville may have held his secrets close to the vest, but the people in Busch's stories seem almost uniformly to settle for something less successful, but far more real. In the story "The Talking Cure," Peter, who finds out about his mother's affair with a local veterinarian, says of his father: "For the rest of the years of my life at home, I feared his deciding to tell me. He mercifully didn't." As in life, where most family secrets are a form of common knowledge kept, by unspoken agreement, just under the table, the characters in "Don't tell Anyone" yearn not so much to change the past but to keep it in its place.

-- Edward Neuert

The Family Orchard
By Nomi Eve
Alfred A. Knopf, 311 pages

Family stories, by definition, can't belong to a solitary teller; to survive, they must be filtered through more than one consciousness. Nomi Eve's debut novel, "The Family Orchard," riffs on this theme as it chronicles six generations of a Jewish family in Eastern Europe, Israel and the United States. The book is written in two voices: Sections headed "I write" are the work of a woman named Nomi, while her father, Eliezer, contributes shorter sections headed "My father writes." Nomi's stories of her ancestors' lives are at times presented in the enchanted, sensual language of fable. In a different typeface in inset boxes, her father relates the hard facts -- dates, historical details, political history -- in a direct, brass-tacks style.

The two streams of text are potentially a distracting gimmick, but it worked for me, making "The Family Orchard" feel modern and age-old at the same time. By now, the similarities between hypertext and ancient texts with commentary (such as the Talmud) are obvious, and it's enjoyable to read a book that simply puts the device in play, without pretension or tedious self-consciousness. After all, one of the messages of the novel is that what's old often becomes new again, especially when it comes to family history.

In the stories themselves, family traits are passed on through the generations in subtle and overt ways. Nomi's great-great-great-grandmother, Esther, has an appetite for out-of-bounds sex and carries on a secret relationship with the neighborhood baker throughout her marriage. She dies giving birth to a son, who becomes immersed in an illicit passion with his stepsister. Eventually they are found out and allowed to marry. ("Imagine, a father and son married to a mother and a daughter!" writes Eliezer.) Nomi's grandmother, Miriam, is an accomplished needlewoman who "sewed stories into her cloth," a precursor to her story-weaving granddaughter. And so on.

Once the family is established in what will become Israel, their livelihood is citrus growing, and Eve makes full use of the metaphorical potential in the business of grafting and caring for their precious trees. At moments, especially as she gets closer to telling of her current life in sections directed to her own husband, Nomi's heated language and lush imagery are perilously close to cloying and overripe; the book could have used trimming by a strict and unsentimental hand. But she's hardly a Pollyanna -- she records failure and disappointment, too, and painful mistakes that can't be righted. The story of Nomi's father's brother Gavriel, for example, born with profound mental and physical defects and sent by his agonized parents to live in an institution, haunts all who follow in its wake. By deciding to speak his name no longer -- to erase him from the family history -- they have subjected themselves as well as their other children to a sentence far worse than they could have imagined.

-- Maria Russo

The Fisher King
By Paule Marshall
Scribner, 224 pages

If you're the adventurous and ambitious type, the kind who never quite fits in anywhere, traveling across the globe and blending in with strange cultures is easy. It's going back home that's hard. Paule Marshall's long-overdue new novel is about just such a journey, a tale in which the distances of geography are smaller than the divisions caused by time and emotion.

In the late 1940s, jazz musician Sonny-Rett Payne leaves behind Brooklyn, N.Y., and his scornful, Mozart-loving family for the glamour and freedom of Paris. Decades later, his hometown stages a tribute to his memory, luring back both his 9-year-old namesake grandson and the boy's caretaker, Hattie, another refugee from the old neighborhood who was once Sonny's lover. The story weaves in and out between the characters' memories and their current experiences, between the emotional baggage carried by Hattie and the innocent impressions of the child.

But what sets "The Fisher King" apart from the spate of teary-eyed novels about "healing" and "coming to terms" currently flooding the market is Marshall's taut, unmelodramatic style and her rich, evocative flair for characters and landscapes. While the bond between young Sonny and his struggling ad hoc parent Hattie forms the soulful core of the story, the dynamics between the supporting players are just as intriguing. Sonny's fearsome, feuding great-grandmothers are so vivid, they can break your heart even as you understand why they'd inspire their children to run the hell away. And author Marshall, who first wrote about Brooklyn 40 years ago in "Brown Girl, Brownstones," intercuts skillfully between a romantic, revitalized borough and gritty, rain-soaked Paris to reveal an unexpected but utterly convincing side of both cities.

"There's all kinds of family, and blood's got nothing to do with it!" declares the fierce, protective Hattie, and Marshall herself is clearly a believer. As she recounts Hattie's complicated affair with the misunderstood jazzman and the heartaches that have divided the little boy's family for far too long, she gently reminds us that home is where we make it. And while kinship is indisputably a matter of random circumstance, it's also, redemptively, very much one of choice as well.

-- Mary Elizabeth Williams

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