- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

In Pico Iyer's novel Abandon (Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 356 pages), John Macmillain, a spiritually confused English graduate student of Islamic mystical poetry, sets out from his California home to find an ancient Sufi manuscript smuggled out of Iran. Making his way through Damascus, Spain, India, and then back to multicultural California where, as Mr. Iyer has put it, you're as likely to find a lost manuscript of Rumi's as in Iran, Macmillain realizes that Islam's mysteries, as with the mysteries of all traditions, no longer confine themselves to the singularity of culture that has wrought them. "Everywhere is becoming mixed up," as Mr. Iyer said in an interview.
Better known as a memoirist and travel writer whose skepticism challenges the wisdom of "the age of late capitalism," Mr. Iyer trods familiar ground here, suggesting that global capitalism often tramples the the ancestoral, the unique, and the precious. Still, the ever-searching Macmillain, bedeviled by spiritual uncertainty, earns the reader's empathy. And Mr. Iyer's unconventional world fascinates.

As one of the characters in T.C. Boyle's Drop City (Viking, $25.95, 444 pages) says, it's "Flower power on the tundra!" when the gang from a down-at-the heel California commune of the '70s decides to pack it in and drive their drug-laden schoolbus past the Canadian border guards. They pull this off this feat by posing as members of the Grateful Dead and head into Alaska, a land of new begininngs. But as anyone who's survived the '60s can attest, peace, love, rock-n-roll, and good dope, no matter how good, just doesn't cut it when the challenge is to keep from freezing to death.
In the novel two groups are pitted against each other: Alaskan homesteader Sess Harder and his wife, who've more or less successfully carved out a life in the wilderness, and the ragtag brothers and sisters of the commune known as Drop City, led by guru Norm Sender and his fellow idealists Star and her boyfriend Marco for whom being hip, whatever that means at the moment, is their highest aspiration. Never a sentimentalist, Mr. Boyle seems to poke fun at a movement whose idealism was often obscured by the practical demands of daily life.
Still, Mr. Boyle's novel misses the mark. Thirty-plus years out, like so many other writers who have attempted to capture that era, hippiedom remains a confounding blur.

In Kirsty Gunn's Featherstone (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 256 pages) Sonny Johanssen, an elderly bachelor, looks up while tending his garden on a Friday afternoon in summer, sure that he is hearing the voice of his niece Francie who left town many years before. Over the course of the weekend, Francie is seen or her presence is felt by others in the remote and seemingly lifeless town.
Miss Gunn's approach to her story and her characters, who also include Francie's high school sweetheart, a minister who has lost his faith and his depressed wife, a Lolita-like teen, and a milkman, among others, is largely interior so that action is revealed as point of view shifts among the townsfolk. Poetic (some passages of dialogue are arranged on the page like poetry), experimental and haunting, Miss Gunn's novel is a look inside loneliness and loss and how, in the fight against them, one woman's disturbing reappearance can make all the difference in drawing people together.

Life in rugged coastal-town Maine in the 1960s is the subject of Deborah Joy Corey's The Skating Pond (Berkley Books, $21.95, 246 pages). Young Elizabeth's mother, an accomplished ice skater, is out on the pond where the local hockey team also plays when she's hit in the face with the puck.From then on, everything in Elizabeth's life changes.
Her mother has named her after the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whom her mother calls a free spirit to encourage a similar freedom of spirit in her daughter. But the accident claims all notions her mother had about own spiritedness and diverts Elizabeth's life away from the freedom her mother envisioned. With her beautiful mother now infirm and turned morose, Elizabeth's father leaves town with another woman. When Elizabeth's mother dies, the girl is effectively orphaned and succumbs to the attentions of an architect new to town, a man her father's age. The impassioned affair leaves its mark on Elizabeth, who afterwards tries to grow into a normal adulthood.
Twelve years pass and once again Elizabeth encounters her former lover, but this time she must confront him, and more importantly her feelings for him, if she is ever to reconcile her past and regain her life. "The Skating Pond" is a spare and sensitive coming-of-age story, pointed, understated, and moving.

R. C. Scott is a writer in Alexandria, Va.

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