Stuck at home for the summer? Don't despair. This month's new novels seem designed for armchair travelers, with locales ranging from Paris to Kampala, Beirut to Orvieto, and Jerusalem to Santiago.
I was most impressed by Edmund White's "The Married Man" (Knopf, 323 pages, $25), which is a masterpiece hidden behind a cliche. It starts off innocuously: at a gym in Paris, an aging American falls for a stranger lifting weights. The other man is French, he is married, his name is Julien: the plot seems to have all the makings of a Barbara Cartland novel for gays and lesbians.
Don't be fooled. This powerful, haunting, fated romance is more on a level with "Romeo and Juliet." Julien, after all, isn't really married. He's divorcing Christine, a magenta-haired, leather-wearing scholar of Ethiopia. Christine's rock-star psyche and casual love just didn't cut it. She couldn't fill the void left by the suicide of Julien's mother and his latent (we think) homosexuality.
Enter Austin, an American expert in Louis Seize furniture who lives on the exclusive Ile-de-St-Louis. His life is a sequence of dazzling salons and gorgeous galleries. But Austin and Julien are star-crossed from the first: a former flame, Peter, is dying from AIDS in New York. Austin has it, too, and when Julien succumbs, Austin wonders, has he killed the man he loves? Or does Julien have secrets he knows nothing of?
Gradually, the artistry of Paris is exchanged for Morocco, where Julien dies. It is here that the novel becomes brutally sad: White lost his own French lover in Ouazarzate. "The Married Man" becomes a torchsong to this experience: bittersweet, at times funny, but ultimately dark.
Likewise, Moses Isegawa's "The Abyssinian Chronicles" (Knopf, 455 pages, $26) is a powerful portrayal of human suffering. Here, the protagonist is a small boy in Uganda caught up in the nightmare regime of Idi Amin. The details of Mugezi's life seem made for a canvas by Hieronymous Bosch. Hated by his mother, Mugezi is enslaved to his siblings, positioning them over newspapers each morning to collect their excrement.
Mugezi's whole clan suffers from the decline of Uganda's chiefdoms, and the migration of its people from the jungles to Kampala. His grandparents are murdered; his uncles and cousins die from AIDS. One aunt is gang raped by Tanzanian soldiers. The husband of another converts to Islam to get a car, but when his circumcision goes awry, neighbors start sacrificing chickens in his garden. It is only by emigrating to Holland that Mugezi can escape.
Tom Hazuka's "In the City of the Disappeared" (Bridge Works, 288 pages, $22.95) highlights the regime of another dictator, this time Augusto Pinochet in Chile. His novel is told through the eyes of a young Peace Corps volunteer, Harry Bayliss, who finds himself submerged in the political stew of Santiago in 1978, after the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Flouting Peace Corps regulations to avoid politics, Bayliss follows the dictates of his heart, befriending an embittered reactionary named Lalo Garcia, and Marisol Huerta, with whom he falls in love.
Hazuka's writing style is naked and inexpert, filled with cartoonish Americans like Steve Castle, who threatens Bayliss with the "Braniff award" (deportation) if he attends another rally. Only Bayliss, it seems, can understand the heartbreak that Pinochet has caused for Chileans. Yet despite these flaws, Hazuka's novel packs a punch, particularly in its depiction of Bayliss' love for Huerta, and his yearning to show her the cloudy Peruvian ruins of Machu Picchu before he departs.
Thomas Powers' "The Confirmation" (Knopf, 407 pages, $25.95) is more standard summer fare. A Grishamesque page-turner, Powers' novel focuses on high-stakes political intrigue involving journalists, senators and a whole bevy of spies. At its heart is young CIA staffer Brad Cameron, looking for evidence of American prisoners left behind in Asia after the Vietnam War. His boss, Frank Cabot, is up for confirmation as director of the agency. What Cameron doesn't realize is that his discovery of an MIA living in a Kazakh camp will imperil both Cabot's career and his own.
Along with its lightening plot, "The Confirmation" boasts full-bodied characters: the New York Times reporter cultivates contacts at a swish barber's and keeps an index of women he's slept with as sources; a one-legged Vietnam vet plots the assassination of the president; and a wonderfully fluffy Holocaust survivor and CIA insider takes Cameron to Jerusalem to talk to Israeli spies. Even Aldrich Ames makes an appearance in a novel that seems on a fast track for Hollywood.
International in scope, too, is "Plum & Jaggers" by Susan Richards Shreve (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $20), a startling black comedy about four kids who survive the bomb that kills their parents on a train in Italy. Now, two decades later, the foursome has formed a stand-up troupe. The punchline: each skit takes place in the family's kitchen, with a bomb ticking beneath the table. Yet it is the bombs within that the group must defuse, before their inability to cope with what happened in Orvieto causes their fragile family to go up in smoke.
In comparison to these tours de force, "Plowing the Dark" by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 415 pages, $25) is a disappointment. Powers' previous six novels were creative and intermeshed. Yet here, Powers makes only the most clumsy attempt to connect his dot-com dream team's virtual reality with the more painful existence of an American hostage in Lebanon.
The pristine white room of the digital laboratory in Seattle (the Cavern) is supposed to parallel the hostage's white cell in Beirut. But these rooms exhibit little more than the sterility of the characters Powers forces to inhabit them. Ultimately, "Plowing the Dark" does not possess the eclat of his earlier "Gold Bug Variations" or "Galatea 2.2." Really, there's probably something better on television.
Kay Chubbuck is an assistant professor of 19th century British literature at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has writen for Newsweek, Outside and other publications.