Cuba, Australia, Hungary, Boston

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There's a novel for every propensity and purpose this fall -- flaring sagas and sweet little nothings; inventions of the future; reimaginings of the past. Some are clinquant, explosive, daring, unsettling. One is fiction as politics, another fiction as idea. And one, the littlest one, does no more than tell a story, and down it goes, after all the others, like a wash of Southern Comfort.

In terms of sheer intelligence, intensity and lure, "The Return of Felix Nogara" (Persea Books, 278 pages, $25.95), by Cuban emigree Pablo Medina, stands out. Centered on a Caribbean island that the author calls Barata but readers are meant to understand as Cuba, "Felix Nogara" imagines what might happen at the end of a Castro-like reign.

The catalyst for action is the return of the eponymous hero to "the island of his birth, the focus of all his attention, his imagination, and his concern." It's been 38 years since Nogara set foot on Barata, and it is through him that we learn the magnificent island's history and come to understand the impossible condition of the exile.

Medina's writing is nothing short of unrelentingly brilliant, his conceptualization of this confabulated place tinged with a bloody, forceful passion. This is fiction conjured with a camera-like precision, as with this sentence that recalls a stage in Barata's past: "And so the city of Carenas came to resemble a carnival with bands of musicians playing sarabandes on street corners, poets in the parks reciting sonnets in the Italian manner -- and the French prostitutes, dressed in suggestive costumes, strolling in their leisurely and lascivious manner through the marketplace, leaving behind the irresistible scent of rosewater and catastrophe."

There's nothing easy about Medina's vision, nothing consoling, and as the book moves back and forth between the life the exile has been forced to live and the island he has returned to, the reader must be willing to go where exiles must go, to not want overmuch for the hero.

"Felix's past lay on the other side of water," Medina writes. "To look there was to look at nothing, or to look at the shadow of something just beyond his reach." It is a desperate journey; it is, finally, profound. It is poetry used for a political purpose, and also a terribly personal one.

The ever-prolific neurophysiologist Colleen McCullough (of "The Thorn Birds" fame) has a big book out this fall. Called "Morgan's Run" (Simon & Schuster, 604 pages, $28), it has all the attributes of a sweeping historical saga -- a huge, thoroughly researched backdrop, tiny type, dialect-peppered dialogue, and a cataclysmic befalling of fates on nearly every page.

"Morgan's Run" begins in 18th century Bristol, England, with the battle cry, "We are at war!" and, with the snappiness of a confident hand, quickly introduces the characters that will stand at the heart of this book. Prime among the English folk is Richard Morgan, a good and resourceful man, who, in horrifically short order, loses his daughter, then his wife, then his son, then (but only momentarily) his common sense, before finally being hauled off to jail on a trumped-up charge.

Soon Morgan is headed toward the hostile, unknown continent of Australia, as part of the great British experiment that sent its unwanted, criminal element to a land on the opposite side of the globe. Perils abound -- on the sea, on the land -- and systematically Morgan stares them down.

There's nothing fancy here in the way McCullough tells her story -- no structural pyrotechnics, no similes more original than "his teeth were white as snow." But what makes this book so fun and worthwhile is the terrific attention McCullough has paid to the times, the fascinating array of details that she and her research team have resurrected and used to paint a portrait of an unlikely, imperiled community on a harsh, but yielding land.

Simone Zelitch's novel "Louisa" (Putnam, 377 pages, $24.95) is smart, ironic, original and structurally sophisticated, a hard-core work of art by a clearly hard-working author. Here again the subject at hand is exiles -- from country, from idealism, from love -- and while the story is ostensibly concerned with the fate of the Hungarian Jews before and after World War II, it may also be taken as a modern-day retelling of the biblical story of the widow Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.

Nora, the story's sarcastic, star-crossed narrator, is Zelitch's stand-in for Naomi, while Louisa, the German would-be-opera singer who marries Nora's good-for-nothing son then hides Nora during the German occupation, is Zelitch's transliterated version of Ruth. Both of them -- the German, the disillusioned Jew -- end up in Israel together, and this is where the story begins.

Zelitch uses a complicated stitch to weave the past and present together. She also endows Nora, her chain-smoking narrator, with an impossible omniscience, enabling her to fill in the blanks with anecdotes, details, revelations she'd have no way of ever knowing. Even so, and despite the book's exasperating overlength in parts, "Louisa" remains a masterful concoction, as Zelitch never breaks the spell of disillusionment that binds the story's seemingly dozens of subplots.

Alan Lightman's "The Diagnosis" (Pantheon, 369 pages, $25) is about exile of another sort -- exile from the life we know. The book opens as Bill Chalmers, a successful professional, if slightly less successful husband and father, finds himself in Boston's mind-boggling commuter rail system with no earthly recollection of where he is supposed to be going. Soon Chalmers has forgotten who he even is -- his name, his numbers, his purpose -- and that's just the beginning of the humiliations.

Over time, in a manner Lightman does not fully explain, Chalmers does recover his mind but it's just a temporary reprieve. For soon his body parts are going numb, and within short order, he's lost the capacity to feel pain. Much of the prose is spent reporting on the diagnostic tools and minds who remain stumped on Chalmers' odd condition, and there's a subplot about Socrates as well. A symbol-laden book driven by the desire to explore the alienating forces of modern culture, "The Diagnosis" is a modern-day "Metamorphosis."

Finally, for lighter fare, there's Art Buchwald's umpteenth book, "Stella in Heaven" (Putnam, 182 pages, $23.95), which he subtitles, "Almost a Novel." The premise this time is short and sweet: Stella may be dead, but she's determined to keep an active hold on her bereaving widower's life, dialing in to him from her post in heaven with updated rosters on the women he should marry.

There are no fireworks in Buchwald's writing, which also means that there are no pretenses. It's just a simple story, with no ambitions to be larger. Still, its readers will walk away with a better appreciation for those who depart too soon, and those they leave behind.

Beth Kephart's "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage" was a National Book Award finalist in 1998. Her "Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter" has just been published by Houghton Mifflin.

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