New Kids on the Block

New York Times, NY
July 24 2004

New Kids on the Block

THERE are first novels writers can’t seem to match — Ralph Ellison’s
”Invisible Man” is the archetype here. There’s the posthumous first
novel — John Kennedy Toole’s ”Confederacy of Dunces,” for example
— that makes you wonder what might have been. There are fireplace
firsts, books that young writers, sometimes wisely, push into the
flames instead of into print. Harry Crews had four novels rejected
before publishing ”The Gospel Singer.” (”Burn it, son,” one of
Crews’s writing teachers told him about an early manuscript. ”Fire’s
a great refiner.”) Contemporary first novels are tougher calls. You
weigh the chance of discovering a terrific new voice against the fear
of plunking down $24 for an apprentice work. It’s safer to wait a few
novels, for a reputation to grow. But there’s nothing like getting in

No need to wait on Lucia Nevai. Her novel, SERIOUSLY (Little, Brown,
$23.95), is full of elements that might be found in any first novel:
a yearning young narrator who’s a bit at sea; a tragic family
history; a brush with romance; a discovery of vocation. Its
protagonist, Tamara Johanssen, has landed in Dustin, a small town in
upstate New York. She’s on the rebound from a life lived recklessly
and demolished early by her crazy mother, who burned down the
family’s house, killing herself and Tamara’s father and younger
sister. Tamara’s story unfolds episodically. Each chapter focuses on
one or two people she has known: the cranky couple who run the local
insurance agency; her older sister, Nora, who is a TV producer; her
gentlemanly lover, Boz; her trashy but proud neighbor, Glorine. The
novel skips back and forth in time, building cumulatively and almost
effortlessly, until we arrive at a moment that upends Fellini’s ”8
1/2,” placing Tamara at the center of a group of ex-lovers and
admirers. Along the way, Nevai delivers pleasures both large and
small in sly, lively prose. She has a neat ability to make her
descriptive sentences do double duty as jokes: ”There was Henry in
his hat out in back of both our stores, looking for something to take
apart and never put back together.” She has a sure sense of
metaphor. (Girls press themselves against a wall until they are
”flat as stickers”; an economy car sounds ”as if the same motor
were used in blenders.”) ”There was something sprightly in the
technique,” Tamara says of a drawing she admires. This assured novel
— the author has also published two previous story collections — is
sprightly and then some. Nevai’s voice has wisdom and charm, and with
”Seriously” she announces a large talent. It will be interesting to
see where it takes her.

Judith Claire Mitchell’s first novel, THE LAST DAY OF THE WAR
(Pantheon, $24.95), is set at the end of World War I and just after.
Yael Weiss is 18 and looking for adventure. She finds it when she
meets Dub Hagopian, an American soldier with an unlikely name who
secretly works for an underground group of Armenian exiles intent on
avenging the Turkish massacres of 1915. Yael falls instantly in love
with Dub, and in quick succession she falsifies her age, changes her
name to Yale White, denies her Jewish heritage and heads overseas,
ostensibly as an aid worker but actually in pursuit of Dub.
Mitchell’s novel tracks Yale, Dub and their associates from St. Louis
and Providence to Paris and Berlin, convincingly modulating among
characters as various as the dying leader of the Armenian
underground, a 13-year-old victim of Turkish abuse and a young German
soldier in the formative days of the Nazi Party, all the while
keeping her focus on Yale and Dub and the intermingling of their
romance with history.

The blistering conclusion feels both satisfying and inevitable,
thanks to the skill with which Mitchell assembles the pieces of her
story and the light touch with which she incorporates thorny issues
of prejudice and national identity into what is essentially a
historical spy novel. It’s a bravura performance, Alan Furst with a
dash of Tintin, and Mitchell may have pulled off in her first try
that greatest of oxymorons, the intelligent beach book.

Adam Langer lacks Nevai’s consummate craft and Mitchell’s pleasing
dramatic flair. Yet his ambitious first novel, CROSSING CALIFORNIA
(Riverhead, $24.95), hits high points of comic empathy. The
geographic and symbolic center of Langer’s novel is Chicago’s
California Avenue, which neatly divides the wealthy Jewish
professionals on its west side from the struggling Jews and blacks
across the way. The action is bracketed by the Iranian hostage crisis
of 1979-81, though only Jill Wasserstrom, an eighth grader, is
actively political (she wears a ”Better Red Than Dead” button to
her bat mitzvah). Langer’s other characters are enmeshed in personal
struggles. Jill’s classmate Muley Wills, brilliant and resourceful,
spends his time working on animated movies made to impress Jill, with
whom he’s in love. Jill’s sister, Michelle, wants to dominate her
high school drama program, and her sometime boyfriend, Larry Rovner,
is trying to land a recording contract for his Jewish rock band,
Rovner! (One song title: ”It’s Not the Meat, It’s the Moshe.”)
These characters cross paths regularly as they cross and recross
California Avenue. More often than not, however, they fail to
connect. Langer connects sometimes. His depiction of the ubiquitous
and casual racism of the era feels on the money. His portrayal of the
Jewish loser Charlie Wasserstrom, no match for his brilliant
daughters, is funny and complex. Yet the novel often feels forced and
slack — Langer has an unsteady hand on the rudder. He thoroughly and
elaborately exposes the narrow goals and narcissistic motivations of
his middle-class Midwestern characters. He now needs to find a more
fluent method of bringing them to life.

When he does, he might ship his recipe south to Mindy Friddle, whose
novel, THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin’s, $23.95), will please only
those who like their soap operas typed out instead of broadcast.
Friddle’s story of Southern sisters squabbling over a family legacy
is sunk both by cliched moments (a desk-clearing sex scene) and
cliched writing: ”For once, I imagined a different kind of place in
life, from which I could look around and enjoy the view.” Things are
not quite as dire in Mary Helen Stefaniak’s novel, THE TURK AND MY
MOTHER (Norton, $24.95). This multigenerational story tracks the
paths of a handful of Croatians forced by war and other hardships
from their Balkan village to Siberia and Milwaukee. Early on,
Stefaniak invokes the movie ”Doctor Zhivago,” and her novel is a
folksier, jokier, more down-to-earth version of that
historical/literary bodice-ripper. Stefaniak’s novel reads, at times,
like a not-quite-confident translation: ”It was as if she had
dissolved into the air, as if a cloud of her filled the room.”

Seth Kantner’s first novel, ORDINARY WOLVES (Milkweed, $22), is a
magnificently realized story about a boy’s coming-of-age in a
difficult, distant place. Cutuk Hawcly, along with his brother and
his sister, has been dragged to Alaska by his dropout dad, Abe, an
artistic Luddite; he mixes Eskimo ethos and ecology as he raises his
children in a bunkerlike house miles from civilization. Mail-order
textbooks are small hurdles for kids schooled in surviving subzero
winters on a diet of caribou pelvis and other local meats eaten
”dried, cooked, raw or frozen” in the midst of mice, moose, shrews,
hungry wolves and rabid foxes. During periodic visits (by dogsled) to
the Inupiaq village of Takunak, Cutuk learns what it’s like to be an
outsider as Eskimo children taunt and fight with him for being
”dumb” and ”white,” lessons he’ll learn all over again when he
grows up and moves for a time to Anchorage. There, backwoods smarts
can’t help him with malls and town girls. There are some hilarious
moments. A cute Eskimo girl named Dawna asks Cutuk, ”You ever try
Pralines ‘n’ Cream?” Cutuk doesn’t reply, ”in case it was a common
narcotic or some kind of bent-over sex everyone else had had.”
”Ordinary Wolves” has scope and a style to match its subjects, the
wide-open spaces of Alaska and youth, and Kantner, who was born and
raised in the Alaska wilderness, manages along the way to touch on
the dissolution and devastation visited upon the state’s native
population, the youthful yearning for experience and guidance and the
abiding love of an odd, isolated frontier family. His novel comes
across as smart and authentic. It’s hard to imagine a better start.

Mark Kamine is a critic whose reviews have appeared in The Times
Literary Supplement in London, among other publications. He is the
assistant production manager for the television series ”The