- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

LABOR DAY
By Joyce Maynard
William Morrow, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, $24.99, 241 pages

THE SIGNAL
By Ron Carlson
Viking, $25.95, 184 pages

BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS
By Aravind Adiga
Free Press, $24, 336 pages

In 1972, as a freshman at Yale, Joyce Maynard was chosen to write a cover story for the New York Times magazine. “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life” and the cover photo of the very gamine author got her lots of attention, including a fan letter from the famously reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. After corresponding with him for a few months and visiting briefly, Ms. Maynard dropped out of college to move in with Mr. Salinger, her senior by 40 years. By the time she wrote about the year-long affair that followed in her 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World,” Ms. Maynard was the successful author of several novels and much of the rest of her life was well known to readers via columns and blogs that documented her doings in great detail.

She wrote about marriage and divorce, raising three children and the decision to deal with her “post breast-feeding” body’s lack of “perkiness” by having breast implants (and then trading in the big implants for smaller ones.) Her books, blogs and writing workshops have a devoted following. So her new novel, “Labor Day,” out in time to be the last book read on the beach or at the cabin, will surely find a receptive audience. It is a story so improbable and with an ending so primordially satisfying that it might be described as a fairy tale. It is even told in the voice of one just out of childhood, 13-year-old Henry, a boy caught between the predictable respectability of weekend dinners with his father, stepmother and baby half-sister, and what he considers his “real” family — his mother, Adele. She is anything but predictable, a former dancer so agoraphobic that the only job she can have is selling vitamins over the telephone.

On a rare excursion to town, milling around a mega-store after picking out clothes for the upcoming school year, Henry meets a man who is wearing the uniform shirt of a Pricemart employee but seems a bit odd. One of his legs is oozing blood and there’s a thin trickle on his face, too. He asks Henry to introduce him to his mom.

The story that follows is as lurid and engrossing as a fairy tale and its themes are just as adult. The pleasures of domesticity are front and center, but so is sex — the 13- year-old’s crude preoccupation with his own body, his uncomfortable observation of what is happening between his mother and Frank and his ultimate recognition of its relationship to love. Ms. Maynard’s treatment of the subject is not subtle but it does ring true.

•••


In “The Signal,” author Ron Carlson sets an ominous tone from the very first sentence. The scene is the “Cold Creek trailhead,” the protagonist is driving an “old blue Chevrolet”; there’s a “ruined sign” and it’s twilight in September. Mr. Carlson is a stylist; his way with words is the primary satisfaction of the story of Mack, a down on his luck ranch hand anxiously awaiting a long-planned camping trip reunion with his former wife, Vonnie. Her arrival intensifies the somber mood. “It’s been a hideous year,” she tells Mack, “and you hideous in it, but it’s my word.” She had promised him one last time together.

As Mack and Vonnie hike woods and trails full of wildlife and laden with memory, their story emerges. He had grown up working on the dude ranch run by his courtly and loving, competent father. Vonnie was a guest, the daughter of wealthy, Eastern parents. The two were attracted to each other but lost touch when she went off to Brown and he headed to Boise State. Later, they reconnected and married “in the dooryard of the home place … [with] three horses standing witness at the corral fence.” At first they were “in love and poor and so fine, but then they wore out poor and they did some damage to love.” The present and the past weave through the six days of Mack and Vonnie’s mountain adventure as Mack’s agenda for the trip, complicated by murky business dealings, goes wrong and violence erupts.

“The Signal’s” plot is complex. Its characters, on the other hand, are static and flat. Mack describes himself as feeling like “a man washed up on the beach after trying to drown himself….” His father’s unexpected death had left him “rudderless” and his pride is hurt by failure in business, but still his meltdown is hard to comprehend. Likewise, Vonnie’s shifting moods are confusing because we don’t really know her.

What does come through, vividly, is the author’s exceptional feeling for the West and for the out of doors, a feeling he has given to his characters. “There was nothing,” Mack notes one night, “between him and the four trillion stars except the unending waves of dark chill dropping steadily onto the mountain meadow.” Such sentences make this short book, despite its shortcomings, a pleasure to read.

•••


Born in India, educated at Columbia and Oxford universities and now living in Mumbai, Aravind Adiga was awarded the 2008 Man Booker prize for his debut novel, “The White Tiger.” He now follows it with a collection of loosely related stories also set in India at a precise time indicated by the book’s title, “Between the Assassinations.” In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her bodyguards. Seven years later, her son Rajiv Gandhi, also serving as prime minister, was killed by Tamil separatists. Aravind’s stories do not explicitly describe these events but they vividly evoke the chaotic, brutal world that spawned them. “Ever since Mrs. Gandhi died,” one character observes, “this country has begun to fall apart.”

The setting is Kittur, a fictional town on India’s southwestern coast. Charts and chapter introductions that read like passages from a guidebook evoke the locale — the railway station, “dim, dirty, and littered with discarded lunch bags into which stray dogs poke their noses”; Umbrella Street, the heart of the commercial district, with its pornographic cinema, colonial-era arched gateway and famous ice-cream shop; “the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Maidan (formerly King George V Memorial Maidan),” a place that is the site of the first temple for the use of the Hoyka, the “backward caste” that makes up 24 percent of the town’s population.

Each chapter is the story of one character — Ziauddin, a Muslim boy surviving on odd jobs in the murky underworld around Kittur’s railway station; Chenayya, the young bicycle deliveryman killing himself with heavy loads, both physical and emotional; Abassi, the glib owner of a shirt factory who can “feel, between his fingers, the fine-spun fabric of corruption”; Souma, the little girl forced to beg so she can get drugs for her father; Ratna, the soft-hearted snake-oil salesman with three daughters to marry off; Murali, the aging Marxist who aspires to write like de Maupassant and realizes that “the Communists [are] finished.” The stories pulse with energy, with color, with the odor of excrement and stale feet, elephants and dead cows, and with the subtleties of social interaction in a profoundly stratified society. They are disturbing but fascinating. Clearly, Aravind Adiga is a writer to watch.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

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