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Fine study of characters tackling a life crevasse

The Baltimore Sun

Bearing The Body

By Ehud Havazelet

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 296 pages / $24

Novels are best opened carefully, like Pandora's box. Sometimes the thought of another human story - more people, more problems - is more than one can bear.

This is especially true when a writer - in this case, Ehud Havazelet - knows how to make his fiction a true mirror. There is a thoroughness to the descriptions of his characters' thoughts, actions and conversations that mimics real time. Their voices seem to echo, as if they were being watched not just by their omniscient narrator but also by wise men and women down through generations, gods and goddesses, pillars of civilization.

In Bearing the Body, the short-story writer's first novel, a reader also is forced to notice, with particular acuity, the heavy inadequacy of human relationships: "They moved through the rooms like strangers, unsure what to do. But not quite like strangers, Nathan thought. Strangers can make small talk, or ignore each other. So much was unspoken between them it weighted, like an awkward pause in an unbearable conversation."

A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and now a professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, Havazelet has written two previous collections of short stories, Like Never Before (1998 ) and What Is It Then Between Us? (1988 ).

His newest work is the story of two brothers and their father. Nathan Mirsky, 38, is a doctor completing his residency. He behaves badly toward his long-suffering girlfriend. He sees a psychiatrist whom he despises. He has long since given up on Daniel, his 43-year-old brother, a hippie activist with a drug problem. But when Daniel dies, supposedly killed by gang members in San Francisco, Nathan and his elderly father, Sol, fly from New York to collect his remains.

Sol, who came to America in 1946 from a village in the Soviet republic of Moldova, lives alone with his Holocaust memories. His thoughts swirl around these memories - including the death of his brother - creating a cyclone of angry energy at the novel's heart. It's easy to see where Nathan and Daniel got their scripts. When Nathan first tells his father about Daniel's death, reminding him that Daniel had many problems, including drugs, Sol practically spits: "'He was weak ... Weak. Irresponsible

Susan Salter Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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