Families -- complex, hippie, soapy


Families are always fertile ground for novelists. With a little digging, even an average family turns out to be as filled with intrigue as the Borgias. Topping this early fall list are three books about families that are spectacularly beyond average.

Caramelo (Knopf, 448 pages, $24) is a sprawling, raucous affair that weaves together several generations of la familia Reyes. This is Sandra Cisneros' first novel since 1985's The House on Mango Street. That book, told from a young Mexican-American girl's viewpoint, was elegant and simple. While Caramelo is also written from a young Mexican-American girl's viewpoint, there's nothing simple about it. It's an exuberant celebration of family folklore. And, like all folklore, it's full of lies, truths, infidelities, secrets and long-festering slights.

The narrator of Caramelo is Celaya "Lala" Reyes, youngest of seven children and only daughter of Inocencio and Zoila. The story of her growing up -- mostly in the 1960s -- is told in a series of family vignettes which, in turn, lead to vignettes of previous generations. The big cast is vividly realized, especially matriarch Soledad Reyes, whom the kids call "the Awful Grandmother." Soledad has enormous reserves of strength and love, prejudice and cruelty. She pulls all the strings. Meanwhile, pulling Soledad's strings is the caramel-colored culture of her native Mexico, which is also strong, cruel, loving and prejudiced.

Cisneros has repute as a poet, and the language of Caramelo, spiced with the music of Spanish and Spanglish, leaps joyfully from the pages. For example, upon crossing into Mexico on a family trip, Lala finds that everything seems different: "The fat lip of a soda bottle when you tilt your head back and drink, churches the color of flan, the smell of diesel exhaust, the smell of somebody roasting coffee and a night smell when the stars open white and soft like fresh bolillo bread."

Caramelo is a bit too long and aimless. But it's a great journey, and by microscopically examining the Reyes family, it tries to illuminate and encapsulate the entire Mexican-American experience.

The Furey-Coopers are a semi-hippie clan who lived a life of experimentation and license in the silly '70s. As Gorgeous Lies (Harcourt, 336 pages, $25) opens, it's 1994 and we find Anton Furey, who is both tyrannical king and court jester of the family, lying near death at Chardin, the former communal farm. This is a sequel to Bright Angel Time, Martha McPhee's 1997 novel about the original blending of the Fureys and Coopers.

That novel was narrated by 8-year-old Kate Cooper; this one has a number of viewpoints and flashes back and forth to various events of the past 20 years. Most, like one involving a German documentary film crew, have a funny poignancy that shows the roots of the emotional scars left on the offspring by the family's unconventionality.

McPhee deftly handles the complex chemistry of siblings and their competition for love and attention. She also has a great eye for detail. You believe in Chardin with its steamy indoor pool. Unfortunately, it's hard to work up sympathy for the family members, Anton especially.

The dying patriarch is a near-mythic character whose appetite for sex, love, drugs and intellectual dabbling consumes everything around him. Everybody wants to love him and be loved in return, but it's not clear why. While vivid and Rabelaisian, Anton is also a lazy, bullying blowhard who fails at everything except emotional ensnarement. Early on Grandmother Cooper asks, "Is he dead yet?" For the next 200 pages I had the same question.

And now, to borrow from Monty Python, for something completely different. Gabrielle Pina's debut novel, Bliss (Villard, $12.95, 256 pages), is as lurid as Caramelo and Gorgeous Lies are nuanced. Bliss takes place mostly in Georgia of the 1950s and revolves around Claudine Jenkins, an African-American girl with visions of grandeur.

Pushed since childhood by her mysterious and powerful aunt, Hattie Mae, Claudine is becoming a world-class violinist. Standing in her way is rape, murder, blackmail and a family twisted beyond Southern Gothic to the realms of daytime soap. Bliss contains every racist cliche in crackerdom, and it elevates sexism to gospel. Each woman is good or at least pitiable, each man bad or pitiful. Still, there's a morbid fascination in seeing the family saga unfold and watching as, one by one, Hattie Mae's secrets are revealed.

Daytime soaps can be fun.

Nick Tosches starts ranting in the third chapter of In the Hand of Dante (Little Brown, 377 pages, $24.95) and continues off and on throughout this exceedingly odd, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes insufferable book that mixes autobiography, hard-boiled crime fiction and metaphysics.

There is a plot of sorts. A drugged-out, mob-connected writer named Nick Tosches gets involved in theft and murder over a priceless literary artifact: the long-lost original manuscript of Dante's The Divine Comedy.

While completely outlandish and profane, this bit of gangsterism is pretty cool; unfortunately, it alternates with a story-line starring Dante himself, who's searching for -- well, it's not clear what he's searching for. Suffice to say, the Dante parts are filled with medieval ponderings and characters speaking in the kind of thee-and-thou argot Hollywood uses to signify ancient times.

Meanwhile, the rantings, which intrude spectacularly, have nothing to do with gangsters or Dante. Mostly they're aimed at the bumbling and timidity of the publishing industry. It's a neat irony, considering that In the Hand of Dante is being published by a major house which is promoting the book as an audacious and important work. It's neither. Except, perhaps, as an exercise in self-indulgence.

John Muncie is former arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. He has been travel-books columnist at the Los Angeles Times and assistant managing editor for features at The San Diego Union. His first novel, Thief of Words, will be published in spring 2003.

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