Redemption, doubt, hostages, wit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some writers - like Melinda Haynes - possess an almost instinctual sense of place. Her second novel, "Chalktown" (Theia, 317 pages, $23.95), revisits both the era (1960s) and site (rural Mississippi) of her immensely successful first novel, "Mother of Pearl."

Sixteen-year-old Hezekiah Sheeland suffers from more than the usual adolescent angst, constricted as he is by a casually cruel mother, Susan-Blair; obsessive absentee father, Fairy; tragic sister, Arena; and mentally disabled toddler brother, Yellababy. And so one day he straps Yellababy to his back, leaving his Pentecostalist mother and her home-turned-thrift-shop behind and sets out on the dirt road that is the artery through George County, Miss., to Chalktown, the mystery hamlet where horror has so beset the residents that they utter no words, but write on chalkboards. In Chalktown Hezekiah seeks answers to questions he doesn't even know how to pose and through the actions of Fairy, discovers the imperiling and empowering nature of redemption.

The literally unspeakable tragedy that afflicted Chalktown, the violence endemic to the rural south of 1961 and the stunning ability of the human spirit to seek hope in the midst of despair provide Haynes' disturbing subject matter. Like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, from the lives of ordinary people Haynes crafts the extraordinary.

*

In a dark cave on a Pacific Island during World War II, August Kleinman meets his fate in the form of a sleeping Japanese soldier whom he must kill. At 78, Kleinman, protagonist of noted short-story writer Ethan Canin's latest novel, "Carry Me Across the Water" (Random House, 206 pages, $23.95), revisits this life-altering moment in anticipation of his own death.

A Jewish refugee who as a teen-ager fled Nazi Germany for Brooklyn with his mother, Kleinman as a young soldier vowed that if he survived he would marry his high school sweetheart, Ginger. The two settle in Pittsburgh where Kleinman opens a brewery that makes him millions.

Canin's exceptionally beautiful novel is told through a series of flashbacks revealling the events that molded Kleinman - his escape from the Nazis with his courageous mother; the tension of his relationship with his father, murdered by a mob in Germany; his adoration of his Italian-Catholic wife and complex relationship with his children; his decision to visit Japan to return a love letter and paint palette he took from the dead Japanese soldier.

Canin balances the thoughtful prose of Kleinman's interior discourse with prosaic conversations he holds with his son, Jimmy, revealing similarities between this relationship and that Kleinman had with his own father. Through his daughter-in-law, a convert to Judaism, Kleinman, who abandoned religion when he married Ginger, finds himself recalling the Orthodoxy of his parents.

Canin deftly melds anti-war sentiment with political history, memory with experience. Though "Carry Me Across the Water" only skims the surface of a deeply complex and memorable protagonist, its stylistic grace makes it a joy to read.

*

Nathaniel Hawthorne meets John Cheever in "The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages, $24), Benjamin Anastas' post-modernist allegory set in suburban Massachusetts. Rev. Thomas Mosher, a young African-American prelate, disappears after two years as pastor of an historic Puritan church of which the congregants are, to a one, rich, white liberals. An investigation ensues, revealing a seamy underside to the pristine village.

Did Mosher commit suicide? Did his rumored (and real) affair with married parishioner Bethany Caruso lead to his death? Was he driven to despair by the relentless insensitivity of his parishioners or his own demons?

Anastas provides some answers (annoyingly, not all one wants) but raises far more questions about the way we live now in this starkly written tale of suspicion and doubt in a New England little changed from the days of the Salem witch trials.

*

Somewhere in South America in the vice-president's mansion, a birthday party is thrown for a Japanese businessman - an undisguised attempt to woo him into building a factory. An acclaimed American soprano has been hired to sing. The president is scheduled to attend, but declines at the last moment, remaining at home, watching his favorite soap opera. Thus when a small band of young terrorists crashes the party, they are forced to take the dinner guests, rather than the president, hostage.

Loosely based on the 1996 takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, "Bel Canto" (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $25), Ann Patchett's deftly crafted fourth novel, illumines the strange new world in which terrorism places both terrorists and hostages with its Babel-esque cacophony of languages, constriction of life for the hostages and new-found luxury for the terrorists. But as days blur into weeks roles subtly shift for the mansion's residents: the VP begins to polish the kitchen floor, the French ambassador becomes cook, the Japanese translator falls for the female terrorist who asks him to teach her to read Spanish, the opera singer teaches another terrorist to sing. When the military intervenes, the rescue shatters budding relationships and sunders dreams. Poignant and affecting, Patchett's provocative tale is marred only by an extraneous and saccarhine epilogue best left unread.

*

Fans of "Bridget Jones's Diary" will find Jennifer Belle's send-up of all things New York, "High Maintenance" (Riverhead, 337 pages, 24.95) sharp, incisive and laugh-out-loud funny. Liv Kellerman had the perfect life - and piece of Manhattan real estate - until she left her cheating husband. Out on her own she ends up selling fabulous apartments to the fabulously rich while trying to adjust to a whole new life of bad men and worse apartments. When her affair with an obsessive architect who likes to bite goes belly up she leaves him, taking the gun she discovers in his bathroom. A gal, a gun and a gorgeous apartment all combine for an explosive denouement. The film rights have been optioned by Madonna; read this witty book first.

*

"My Little Blue Dress" (Viking, 297 pages, 24.95) by former Spy magazine editor Bruno Maddox details an attempt by a 20-something Englishman named Bruno Maddox to write the memoirs of a 100-year-old Englishwoman in one night. Why? He could be trying to secure a million dollars from a publisher. He could be justifying why he killed the woman while serving as her caregiver. He could be trying to win back the love of his life. Unfortunately for Maddox, he won't succeed in any of the above, because he simply doesn't have the knowledge to write such a memoir.

"My Little Blue Dress" is rife with hilarious anachronisms and provides a delightfully wry antidote to too much Jane Austen and epistolary novels, while at the same time elucidating Gen X angst and parodying Manhattan theme restaurants. With dry wit Maddox propels the reader through a whirlwind tour of historical misinformation till past and future meet and Bruno becomes the focus of the novel. While it will never rival Henry Fielding's "Shamela," "My Little Blue Dress" makes for a refreshing parodic interlude.

Victoria A. Brownworth, who writes for many national publications, is the author of seven books and editor of seven. The most recent book is "Night Shade: Gothic Tales by Women" (Seal Press), co-edited with Judith M. Redding.

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