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Baggott's 'Madam': nuns, hustlers, show people

The Madam, by Julianna Baggott, Atria Books. 304 pages. $24.

Who wrote the book where a dancing bear lived upstairs in the boarding house -- with an orphanage thrown in for good measure? Aha! John Irving! But not this time. It's the third novel by Julianna Baggott -- although one of the children happens to be named Irving, and coincidences are always suspicious.

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As in the real Irving, when the dancing bear is dead and buried, we know that the other characters have also struck the worst of times. And, like Irving, Baggott likes to list events before they happen, so we can tick off how far we've gotten: "Before there can be a murderous heart, or, for that matter, before there can be a whorehouse, an orphanage, a dank trunk with rusted hinges, there must first be a hosiery mill." That's the first sentence. Less successful is the rusted, creaking device of a recurring dream, in this case a dream of a drowning, that eventually comes true.

More interesting are the dedication and acknowledgments that start us off: is found in the dedication and acknowledgments that start us off: Apparently Baggott's great-grandmother was indeed a madam, and her grandmother "was raised among show people, nuns, hustlers, and whores." (I like those nuns in the mix.) So, while this is a novel, we are supposed to understand that its author is more intensely involved than usual -- as though a writer doesn't always have a mercilessly personal connection to the manuscript at hand. Still, the taut line the author draws between fact and fiction does hum with tension.

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The first half takes place in a bleak coal town in West Virginia in 1924, where spirits fall with the soot (or "carb") and where things, including Alma's marriage, fall apart. Occasionally we are challenged by what I presume is the local dialect: One paragraph offers us "drinting," "whisper sister" and a nurse who is "dauncy in her little cap" and encourages patients to "keep your dobbers up." Alma temporarily escapes with her husband, abandoning her three children for a fruitless trip to Florida, but then returns alone and, with two other women she barely knows, turns her empty boarding house into a brothel.

This is in tune with other events, because all the characters seem to make major decisions on the spur of the moment. But the abrupt changes help make for an interesting, ever-shifting yarn.

Five years later, the second half. The brothel, now well-established, sells liquor on the side; Alma's daughter Lettie is now 15. The focus shifts to the daughter. She elopes with a young cop who turns out to be a wife-beater. The narrative proportions become strange: The entire elopement, including the beatings and Lettie's return home, takes up only one six-page chapter.

It's not clear whether the marriage lasted a week, a month, or a year, but it couldn't have been long, certainly not long enough to my mind to justify what happens next: Immediately five women, including a nun, decide the young husband must be murdered, and this plot takes up 26 admittedly exciting pages. Then in an afterword Irving returns to the boarding house to briefly recall the dead bear. Hmmm.

Charles Nicol, professor of English and humanities at Indiana State University, and co-author of two books on Vladimir Nabokov, published his first book review in the Kansas City Star when he was 17.


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