Exiles, burnt biscuits, lethal virus; NOVELS OF JANUARY


From Robert Stone to Bridget Jones, 1998 was a memorable year for all kinds of literature. The early fruits of 1999 suggest another bountiful year in fiction, with the balance tipped toward small wonders of literary workmanship and away, so far, from blockbusters.

Kevin Canty's 1994 debut story collection, "A Stranger in This World," instantly marked him as one to watch. With honesty and piquancy his fiction exposes the embattled inner lives of people who have learned to think of themselves as outsiders. In Canty's remarkable new novel, "Nine Below Zero" (Nan A. Talese, 260 pages, $23.95), two such exiles fall in love.

Justine Gallego arrives in a frigid Montana December to look after her ailing grandfather, a U.S. Senator. The local working man who has saved his life, Marvin Deernose, figures the privileged and married Justine to be out of his league. But Justine, still emptied out two years after losing her only child, seizes on the electricity they both feel. On the subject of a mother's inexhaustible mourning, Canty's writing eschews sentimentality and approaches greatness. Justine has to learn again, each new day, that death is a permanent affair: "This was intolerable," she reminds herself throughout the novel, "He was still dead."

Justine's blunt statement, uncomplicated as it seems, opens up a whole landscape of grief for the reader's understanding. It voices, and in the same breath dashes, the tacit hope that death could reverse itself. In a few words Canty makes the reader grasp what it means and how it feels to experience a loss of this magnitude.

Almost everything in the novel is just as taut and finely calibrated. Canty is a writer's writer, never letting slip an extraneous word. But unlike many an artisan of his gifts, he is also a reader's writer. He uses his fine tools to build a searingly truthful story of passionate love stumbled upon and immediately, inevitably lost, taking with it much more. In "Nine Below Zero," Canty banishes the sentimental mythmaking of a "Bridges of Madison County" and writes a true romance.

A different sort of writer's writer, the young novelist Peter Landesman, seems anxious to establish his own distinctive literary voice. His first novel "The Raven" won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997, but "Blood Acre" (Viking, 262 pages, $23.95) signals either a sophomore slump or some more dire condition. Landesman means to write arrestingly but sounds at best idiosyncratic, at worst labored and showy. His very first sentence invokes "a night dark beyond emergency." The phrase (like the title "Blood Acre") creates a sense of mystery -- because it doesn't mean much of anything. A great deal of the novel is similarly enigmatic.

"Blood Acre's" overheated plot moves half-heartedly toward nowhere. The web of corruption and murder tightening around a dying New York attorney seems principally an occasion for the author to lay down a thick impasto of mean-streets atmosphere signifiying little. Some writers and self-consciously literary types may eat it up, but most readers will do themselves a favor by skipping over "Blood Acre" and taking up a novel that places their pleasure and enlightenment before the display of its own descriptive prowess.

Chris Offutt's lean little stories clear the palate admirably. Offutt's previous story collection "Kentucky Straight" and his memoir "The Same River Twice" have garnered him a loyal readership that will not be disappointed by the slim new volume of short stories called "Out of the Woods" (Simon & Schuster, 172 pages, $21).

The title describes many of the characters who live inside Offutt's pages: people displaced from their native Kentucky hills and uneasy where they have landed. It is, ironically, exactly because they are out of the hills that these characters are not out of the woods.

Offutt never uses a metaphor that isn't perfect, nor one that doesn't reveal character. The erstwhile fighter longing for home in "Tough People" knows what he's talking about when he calls his eye "as puffed and black as a burnt biscuit"; the figure of speech brings the reader into intimacy with him and his homesickness. Prose doesn't get any sharper than Chris Offutt's, and few stories have left me so certain that I needed to hear them.

No consideration of contemporary fictional craft could go long without mentioning the Booker-Prize-winning Anita Brookner, nearly as prolific as she is elegant. Brookner's somber 18th novel, "Falling Slowly" (Random House, 240 pages, $24), charts a few key comings and goings in the staid middle lives of the Sharpe sisters, Beatrice and Miriam.

The plot keeps things moving apace, but "Falling Slowly" is truest to its accomplished, Jamesian self when delicately exfoliating the layers of emotion and meaning that enfold discrete moments of experience.

Brookner's fans know who they are, and will savor this latest offering. Those who haven't yet had the pleasure can expect thoughtful ruminations on aging, loneliness, and the varieties of human love; a leavening sense of humor; and the sheer beauty of Brookner's mature style.

There are thrills to be found in the bookstore this month, too. "Smoke Screen" (Morrow, 352 pages, $24) is just the third book published by Vincent Patrick in 20 years. "The Pope of Greenwich Village" and "Family Business" enjoyed commercial success, critical respect, and adaptation to the big screen; "Smoke Screen" promises to follow in their footsteps.

Half the fun in letting yourself get hooked on this efficient page-turner is sketching out a Hollywood cast in your head: for the mad Cuban doctor determined to unleash an ebola-like virus on an unsuspecting American public; for the patriotic ex-cop who collaborates with the CIA to intervene; and for the master thief he enlists to help carry out what only seems like a run-of-the-mill jewel heist. Screenwriter Patrick is an expert plotter who never tips his hand (and holds some fabulous cards).

Laura Demanski studies and teaches Victorian literature at the University of Chicago. She previously worked at Simon and Schuster and the University of Chicago Press.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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