Outstanding among the new windfall of winter novels is a salty coming-of-age tale by Lois-Ann Yamanaka. Set on Hawaii's Big Island, "Heads by Harry" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pages, $24) is the story of Toni Yagyuu, daughter of a Japanese taxidermist and his schoolteacher wife, who struggles through a stormy adolescence in the home above her father's shop in the town of Hilo.
Caught between her passion for the art of taxidermy and her father's more lofty expectations for her, Toni has equally embattled relationships with the rest of her family, alternating between cruelty and fierce loyalty toward her flamboyantly gay older brother and her vain, fashion-plate younger sister.
Complicating things further is the family's incestuously close relationship with the neighboring Santos clan, whose three macho sons serve as both pseudo-siblings and love interests for all three Yagyuu kids.
Yamanaka's unaffected prose style makes some surprisingly complex connections: her descriptions of the violence and artistry required in taxidermy mirror the brutality and delicacy of her characters' interactions.
Vividness is everywhere here, not least in Toni's prickly observations about Hawaiian cliches. (In one scathing scene, Toni takes a job in a tourist trap in which she notes that every "authentic" gewgaw is made in the Philippines or in China.) Earthy and exotic, occasionally macabre, often sexy, "Heads by Harry" is one Hawaiian import that throbs with authenticity.
First-time novelist Russell Atwood offers some hip thrills in his neo-noir tale "East of A" (Ballantine, 224 pages, $22). Set in the Alphabet City section of New York's East Village, the novel stars a smart-aleck private eye named Payton Sherwood who is drawn into a murder case after a young street girl steals his Rolex.
Atwood's novel is populated by enough thugs, junkies, dealers, shady nightclub impresarios and homeless squatters for every letter of the alphabet. There is plenty of action amid lots of cheeky urban details (a club called the Hellhole, a coffee bar called DOT.CALM.CAFE), and Sherwood makes a diverting tour guide, both sarcastic and sympathetic.
Take the A train uptown with "Infants of the Spring," Wallace Thurman's roman a clef which the Modern Library is reissuing, more than 60 years after the author's death, as part of its new Harlem Renaissance Series (175 pages, $12.95). First published in 1932, the novel features thinly veiled portraits of such 1920s Harlem Renaissance figures as Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Alain Locke. These and others gather in an apartment house, which they christen "Niggeratti Manor," for the purpose of creating a "new Negro art."
Although these poets, painters and musicians have varying degrees of talent, they all seem more interested in grandstanding and drinking gin than in artistic production. Raymond, the novelist whom Thurman modeled after himself, wants no part of organized movements, is "sick of discussing the Negro problem" and wishes only to dedicate himself to art, yet "he was becoming less and less confident that he was possessed of the necessary genius."
These are a young man's preoccupations -- Thurman died at age 32, only two years after publishing this novel -- yet "Infants of the Spring" has ageless intelligence and courage. Unafraid to criticize what he saw as the piousness and pretensions of the "New Negro" movement, Thurman adds a caustic dissenting voice to the Harlem Renaissance chorus.
What if Fidel Castro had signed a contract to pitch for the Washington Senators instead of leading the revolution in Cuba? That's the question Tim Wendel's first novel, "Castro's Curveball" (Ballantine, 304 pages, $23.95), attempts to answer.
It's the story of minor-league catcher Billy Bryan, who meets young Castro while playing winter ball in Havana in the fateful year of 1947. Immersing himself in the sparkly club-and-casino nightlife of Havana, Billy falls in love with a beautiful photojournalist who is devoted to Castro's cause -- and is possibly also his lover -- while Castro is forced to choose between a baseball career and life as a rebel leader.
Despite some really bad B-movie dialogue and clumsy plot contrivances, Wendel's story is irresistible. With its mix of steamy tropical romance and historical fact (Castro was indeed pursued by the Senators, though whether or not he ever signed a contract has never been proved), "Castro's Curveball" has all the excitement of a tie-breaking home run.
All of Sue Miller's previous novels have been turbulent family dramas, and her sixth, "While I Was Gone" (Knopf, 266 pages, $23), is no exception. Jo Becker is a 50-ish veterinarian with three grown daughters. Married to a minister, living in a cozy New England village, Jo's perfect life is interrupted by a reunion with Eli Mayhew, a man she had lived with for a brief time in a communal house back in 1969.
Among the disturbing memories Eli dredges up for Jo are those of their mutual housemate, Dana, who was killed that year in an apparent robbery attempt. Jo's discussions of the past with Eli lead to a flirtation and the divulging of some dark secrets, during the course of which Jo's marriage is seriously threatened. Despite occasional nice touches, Miller's novel belongs to the phone-it-in school of contemporary fiction; emotionally inert, with little verite and less humor, the narrative makes it nearly impossible to feel sympathetic to Jo or anyone else.
Another domestic-crisis novel, Marly Swick's "Evening News" (Little, Brown, 368 pages, $23) is an extremely scrupulous delineation of a family's disintegration in the wake of a horrible accident. Giselle Trias' 9-year-old son, Teddy, shoots his 2-year-old half-sister, Trina, with a handgun belonging to his best friend's father. Swick's novel may in fact be a bit too scrupulous. As it maps the progress of Giselle's and Teddy's sorrow and guilt, and charts the unappeasable anger Trina's husband feels toward his stepson for his daughter's murder, "Evening News," with its leisurely pace and day-to-day details, falls into an almost lulling facility. This makes for easy reading but an uneasy conscience: it feels shameful to sink so comfortably into a novel about such unspeakable grief.
Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Pub Date: 02/07/99