Trekkers, Spenser, sex, chemicals; EARLY SPRING NOVELS


A disquieting novel from South Africa rich in myth, magic and horror; a story collection of abiding wit; a tried-and-true detective story with an academic multicultural setting and Spenser at the helm; an exotic post-colonial send-up by an American; an identity saga set on an Indonesian island medical school -- these intriguing works of fiction will tame the icy winds of early spring.

In "Devil's Valley" (Harcourt Brace & Co., 416 pages, $24), the distinguished South African novelist Andre Brink invades the origins of Boer culture finding in a no-man's-land of inbred whites the origins of what became Apartheid. A burned-out journalist named Flip Lochner voyages to "Devil's Valley" where inbred, diseased descendants of the original Great Trekkers maintain a community that is feudal, patriarchal, cruel, murderous and utterly unredeemed. Purity of the blood defines daily life; black children somehow born to these monsters are stoned to death.

It's South Africa in microcosm, a place where "the dead haunt the living." Brink has written an allegory of his benighted native land where necrophilia is the least of it. There are storms, but no rain, and even fire does not purge. Brink becomes no less than a Hieronymous Bosch on paper as he applies a tincture of magic realism to this canvas of iniquity. Coffins multiply. This disturbing, uncompromising novel by the author of "A Dry White Season" and "Imaginings of Sand" is as troubling as South Africa itself.

Speculative, philosophical and surreal, the stories of Jeanette Winterson ("The World and Other Places," Alfred A. Knopf, 220 pages, $22) embrace risks. Winterson's abiding theme is disappointment, as in a story about a man and woman who must share a shipboard cabin only for her not to want him: "You thought you were going to be somebody until you slip down into the nobody that you are," the man despairs.

Some stories are from the point of view of men, others from the perspective of women. "The Poetics of Sex" is a tour de force in which Winterson, passionate in her defense of homosexuality, confronts cliched questions: "Why do you sleep with girls?" "Which one of you is the man?" "What do lesbians do in bed?" The narrator concludes that "the world is full of blind people," whose skewed perception allows them to see in the two lovers, "Picasso and me," only "perverts, inverts, tribades, homosexuals. They see circus freaks and Satan worshipers, girl-catchers and porno-turn-ons."

Winterson's characters are all preoccupied with the same question: "How shall I live?" One character confides: "I did not know who I was. I was waiting to be invented. I was waiting to invent myself." This little volume will wrench you out of complacency. From "The 24-Hour Dog" on, it will startle. If you don't already know her for "Sexing the Cherry" and "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," you will fall in love with this writer.

A season without a Spenser is like a season without Michael Jordan; it seems inconceivable. In "Hush Money" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 303 pages, $22.95), an African-American client, introduced by Hawk, who figures handsomely in this book, complains that he's been denied tenure at the "University."

The African-American chose to teach Milton and other "dead white men." Soon he was "outed" by a gay student who, after naming him as his seducer, committed suicide.

Parker wants no part of the political correctness game. "Most university tenure committees call for rampaging," Spenser thinks. Visiting the University's African American Center, he notices, "Everyone I saw was black." Something unholy abides.

"I hate segregation," Spenser reflects. Soon he is cleaning up the back yard after Pearl the wonder dog. Blessed be this crime writer, worthy successor to Dashiell Hammett, for he sees life whole.

"Teeth of the Dog" by Jill Ciment (Crown Publishers, 224 pages, $22) is set on ugly Vanduu somewhere in the Pacific between the Philipines and New Guinea, a Third World island out of hell. Vacationing on this nightmare Eden, a former exotic dancer named Helene and her much older ethnologist husband, Thomas, meet disaster.

The first is a hippy expatriate druggie named Adam Finster who sells a snake oil aphrodisiac to the local inhabitants. Finster calls himself "a Kurtz without the horror." Others dub him AMR: "American Mercantile Riffraff." There is no sentimentality here, as witnessed in what passes for a feast of the island cuisine: "fried Spam, corn beef hash, a plate of taro mash the consistency of rabbit glue, and a big bowl of Top Ramen noodles."

In the thickening plot, Thomas kills a child with his car while Helene is blamed for the murder, her motivation to sell the girl's body parts. The American consulate decides to turn her over to the Vanduu to give them "the illusion of sovereignty," and not to endanger the deal that would procure for the United States of America a lease for an island military base. This story gains in urgency, so stay with it.

Jane, the awkward, overweight heroine of "Swimming with Jonah," Audrey Schulman's well-wrought second novel (Bard, 272 pages, $22), fails to get into an American medical school. This comes as no surprise to her icy parents, a former ballerina and a rich doctor who gained his life's purpose as a pioneer in anesthesia in the bloody jungles of Vietnam. The ballerina gained only 10 pounds when she was pregnant with Jane. The father was exposed to "sundry chemicals" in Vietnam. The product of their alliance is a person whom people believe "liked life more than she did."

At an Indonesian medical school, which seems more like Marine boot camp, Jane transcends her self-imposed mediocrity. In an extraordinary scene in the school's dank basement laboratory, she cuts into her first cadaver as if her entire life depends upon it: "The body lay gray and slashed. She saw one cut ran through its neck, the dry severed straw of its jugular, the yellow globs of fat, the white strings of tendons..."

"Swimming with Jonah," who is a shark, is startling in its surreal intensity, and exquisitely written.

Joan Mellen, an English professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, is the author of 12 books, on topics ranging from the Japanese cinema to Marilyn Monroe to sexuality in film. Her most recent books are "Hellman and Hammett" and "Bob Knight: His Own Man." She is at work on a biography of the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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