Mothers, grunge, wit, eccentricity; NOVELS OF MAY


Don't judge this book by its title: Jayne Anne Phillips' "MotherKind" (Knopf, 304 pages, $24), which sounds like some new kind of baby formula, is in fact a novel with more depth than its name suggests. Phillips has written well about mothers and daughters before, most notably in her 1984 novel "Machine Dreams." But "MotherKind," in which a young woman nurses her mother through the final stages of cancer while caring for her own newborn baby and two stepsons, is particularly sobering.

Phillips plunges headlong into a fraught situation as Kate, 31 and hugely pregnant, settles her failing mother into the suburban Boston home she just bought with her not-quite-husband Matt, a not-quite-divorced internist with two young sons of his own. Soon the baby, a boy, is born, and Kate's life becomes a dizzying sleepless round of chemotherapy appointments and morphine shots combined with breast-feeding and diaper changes.

It is through these mundane chores that the harsh profundities of living and dying make themselves clear to this family. Phillips is unflinchingly meticulous in imagining the courage required of Kate to usher in a new life while watching another one wane. Intense and compassionate, "MotherKind" is a Mother's Day gift for all but the faint of heart.

A much more affable look at motherhood comes from Delia Ephron, the author and screenwriter whose 1995 novel, "Hanging Up," was recently released as a film starring Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton. Ephron's new novel, "Big City Eyes" (Putnam, 240 pages, $23.95), is the story of Lily Davis, a single mother who leaves Manhattan with the hope that small-town life will provide a more wholesome environment for Sam, her troubled teen-age son.

In Sakonnet Bay (a stand-in for East Hampton), Lily takes a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, becomes involved in a murder investigation as well as an affair with a married detective, and watches Sam take up with a hulking Star Trek fanatic named Deidre.

It's not the simple country life Lily had anticipated, but it turns out to have its satisfactions, including a much-improved relationship with the laconic Sam. Ephron's book is a lot like the town she describes: breezy and superficial, quirky and cheerful.

"Never Mind Nirvana" (Random House, 256 pages, $21.95), a novel by Seattle native Mark Lindquist, provides a thorough education in that city's post-Kurt Cobain alternative-music scene. A sort of low-rent "High Fidelity," Lindquist's book is the tale of Pete Tyler, the ex-member of a popular grunge band who works by day as a deputy prosecutor and hangs out in groovy clubs at night.

Pete's worlds collide when he is assigned a rape case involving a local rocker of his own age (mid-30s) and a 19-year-old club girl. Meanwhile, he struggles between the impulse to stay single forever and an urge to settle down, though he can't decide between his stripper girlfriend and a junior record-company exec named Esme. While Pete's love for music seems far more heartfelt than his appreciation of women, he remains a fairly sympathetic guy, and Lindquist's rain-drenched, glittering views of Seattle are stunning.

Three interesting collections of short stories arrive this month, one by a young first-time author and two by more established writers. "Kick in the Head" (Doubleday, 224 pages, $22) by Steven Rinehart, is a debut collection notable for punchy first lines ("On the sixth day of her hunger strike Lydia Martinez entered my dreams and immediately died there") and cruel male subcultures of nearly Hobbesian dimensions.

Peopled with sadistic Boy Scouts, lecherous high-school teachers, doomed insurance clerks and murderous hitchhikers, Rinehart's fictional worlds are dark and troubled places where hope is in short supply.

Rinehart is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' program and his prose suffers from excessive workshopping, often appearing more pleased with itself than interested in its subject. Still, one remains curious to see what this inventor of unforgettably upsetting scenes will write next.

Stephen Dobyns, a veteran author of 10 volumes of poetry and 20 -- yes, 20 -- novels, weighs in with his first collection of stories, "Eating Naked" (Holt, 276 pages, $23). He is a writer of immense psychological complexity and droll, thoughtful humor, both of which appear in abundance here. Each story features characters coping with life-shaking change: a poet whose husband is killed by a falling pig in Harvard Square in "A Happy Vacancy"; a woman forced into a reunion with her five grown children, each given up separately for adoption years ago, in "Part of the Story"; a failed screenwriter who kidnaps his own estranged wife in "Dead Men Don't Need Safe Sex."

"It seemed people spent their time trying to make their lives unchanging whereas change was the medium in which they moved," Dobyns writes in the book's title story. "As long as one avoided death and injury, did the changes matter as much as how one responded to them?" Big questions like these, and endlessly inventive answers, are this remarkable prose artist's forte.

Finally, the Native American writer Sherman Alexie, author of the prize-winning novels "Reservation Blues" and "Indian Killer," has produced a very fine story collection called "The Toughest Indian in the World" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pages, $24). Lyrical, touching, funny and soulful, the tales here are love stories of a mostly unconventional kind.

A young Spokane Indian reporter in the title story picks up a hitchhiker, a fierce-looking Indian from another tribe who fights for money. In an improbable yet somehow mysteriously necessary turn of events, these two rather macho strangers end up spending an amorous night together.

Alexie combines fearless stereotype-busting humanity with fresh, sharp characterizations and dialogue. As he writes about one Native American woman: "She understood that white people were eccentric and complicated and she only wanted to be understood as eccentric and complicated as well." One could ask nothing more of any fiction.

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.

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