Rock, childhood, Israel, faith, martyrs

Boy loves band. Band breaks up. Boy tries to reunite band. So goes the plot of rock journalist Marc Spitz's irresistible first novel, How Soon Is Never? (Three Rivers Press, 368 pages, $13). Spitz, a writer for Spin magazine who is no relation to the Olympic gold medalist of the same name, here invents a fictional alter ego named Joe Green, who is no relation to Mean Joe Greene, the legendary defensive tackle for the Steelers.

Growing up miserable on Long Island in the mid-1980s, the teen-age Joe Green becomes infatuated with the British rock band called the Smiths, and while the novel chronicles several of Joe's romances with women, none are as sweetly soulful as his love affair with the Smiths' music. "Hearing each song was like getting smacked out of a fit," Joe remembers. "I wanted to go back to various points in my young life and replace key music-related episodes with these songs."


Years later, about to turn 30 and employed as a music critic for Headphones magazine, Joe hatches a chimerical scheme. He'll reunite the members of the band, who last played together in 1987, and recapture the salvation their music offered him in his early youth, in the meantime providing a great story for the magazine. For anyone who has ever had a jones for a band like the Smiths, Spitz's novel will seem gratifyingly on-key.

Julie Orringer offers coming-of-age portraits from a distinctly female point of view in her first collection of stories, How to Breathe Underwater (Knopf, 240 pages, $21). Her young protagonists wrestle with some alarming situations, including, in both "Pilgrims" and "What We Save," mothers who are dying of cancer. These are gruelingly accurate tales, in which girls are forced to confront the ugly cruelties of a disease that steals away their mothers before their eyes.


Other stories in Orringer's volume - "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones" and "Stars of Motown Shining Bright" - feature teen-agers struggling with the dangerous power of their sudden sexuality, while "Stations of the Cross" follows a Jewish girl as she tries to maneuver through a tiny, all-Catholic town in southern Louisiana. "I don't understand it here," a little boy whispers to his sister at a creepy Thanksgiving gathering in "Pilgrims," and the same could be said for all the children in this heartbreaking book, who are forced to navigate through darkness with little guidance.

Israel is not a culture blessed with the luxury of a casual or lighthearted literature, and Edeet Ravel's first novel, Ten Thousand Lovers (Perennial, 304 pages, $12.95), is no exception. Ravel is a Canadian who was born on a Marxist Israeli kibbutz, as is Lily, her heroine, a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during the 1970s.

While hitchhiking to Tel Aviv, Lily meets Ami, a handsome older man whose work involves the interrogation of Palestinian prisoners. Appalled at first, she comes to understand the complexities of Ami's situation, which includes an Israeli-Arab best friend and a full measure of sympathy for the growing Palestinian resistance on the one hand, and a deeply patriotic loyalty to his country and his fellow Jews on the other. Lily and Ami become lovers, and he eventually quits his job to become a playwright, but a personal crisis forces him to make one last, ultimately fatal interrogation, just after Lily learns that she is pregnant.

What's best about Ravel's book is her analysis of Israeli politics through the prism of the Hebrew language, with all its evasions and ambiguities.

The challenge of faith takes a different form in Keith Scribner's engaging second novel, Miracle Girl (Riverhead, 256 pages, $23.95). Things are not going well for John Fitzgerald Kennedy Quinn, a 30-ish real-estate salesman for the Catholic Church in an ailing industrial city in upstate New York. His live-in girlfriend seems restless. He's afraid of his boss, a cranky bishop named Frank. His job is going nowhere, and his attempts to curry favor with a rival real-estate company are causing him nothing but grief.

Making matters worse, rumors about a mysterious half-Vietnamese, half-black "miracle girl" who has suddenly developed healing powers drives both the Church and the city into an uproar, snarling traffic with incoming pilgrims and making the bishop even crankier.

Will the miracle girl prove to be the key to the dying city's comeback, or is she a fake? Will the unbelieving Quinn stumble upon a reason for faith, reconcile with his girlfriend and find financial satisfaction? In providing answers, Scribner's urban comedy is spirited and often poignant.

Ambitious in every way, Fredrick Barton offers a view of the civil-rights movement in Louisiana in A House Divided (University of New Orleans Publishing 352 pages, $26.95). Already a winner of the William Faulkner Prize in fiction, Barton's novel traces the careers of two ministers who offer their lives to the cause of civil rights: an African-American named Dr. George Washington Brown and his colleague, Jeff Caldwell, a white Southern Baptist preacher.


Narrated by Caldwell's son Tommy, the book begins with an anti-war rally in a New Orleans church in 1968, where a psychotic gunman shoots Brown and Caldwell, causing the black minister's death. From there, Tommy backtracks through the lives of both leaders, exposing their secrets and fatal flaws as well as their undeniable heroism. Barton's novel is grandly old-fashioned, with many scenes that are as familiar as stock footage. Yet his narrative gathers momentum with a series of cliffhangers that manage to keep the reader engaged despite occasional predictability.

Finally, from Norway comes a most interesting and quirky novel called Stella Descending, by Linn Ullmann (Knopf, 245 pages, $23). Ullmann is the daughter of the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and she shows herself here to be as psychologically astute in her line of work as each of her parents has been in theirs.

The book tells of a young wife and mother who one August night falls to her death from the rooftop of her Oslo house. It's unclear whether Stella's husband, Martin, pushed her or tried to save her from the fall. Ullmann offers many differing perspectives from a round robin of voices, including Stella's two daughters, a police detective, an irascible old man whom Stella befriended, and the dead woman herself.

The narrative is full of its characters' dreamscapes and fantasies, all of which help to underline the novel's uncertainty, which is, after all, its point: What can we really know of Stella, of her life as well as her death?

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.