Sunday, July 20, 2008

From the very first sentence, it is hard to read Richard Bausch‘s 11th novel without thinking of American troops fighting today. “They went on anyway, putting one foot in front of the other … trying, in their misery and confusion — and their exhaustion — to remain watchful.”

Set in the Italian mountains near Cassino at the end of World War II, Peace (Knopf, $19.95,171 pages) describes one night in the life of three U.S. soldiers on a reconnaissance mission, and the old Italian peasant they are using as a scout. Physical discomfort vies with fear of surprise attack, bickering among themselves and creeping doubts about an act one of them has just committed to create a suffocating atmosphere.

Mr. Bausch’s characters are assailed by relentless rain and cold rather than heat and dust but their struggles with an unknown language, with dread of entrapment and, occasionally, with confusion about the line between warfare and simple cruelty are reminiscent of what is going on in Iraq. As Sherman observed from his own grim experience, “War is hell.” Only the details change.

Paradoxically, Mr. Bausch, who served in the Air Force in the 1960s as a survival instructor, has called this taut, determinedly gritty, violent and unheroic book, “Peace.” The central character, Robert Marson, a devout Catholic Army corporal whose parents had emigrated from Germany, finds, at the end of his vividly described long, dark night of body and soul, “a terrible, inhuman clarity.”

In the morning, he has just enough energy to extract from his ghastly circumstances a moment of power, freedom and understanding after which his mind is flooded with thoughts of home — as it happens, Kearny Street in Washington, D.C.

This is a gripping meditation on what it means to be at war and, also, at peace.

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Like “Peace,” Jim Lehrer‘s Mack to the Rescue: A One-Eyed Mack Mystery (University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95, 202 pages) is short and peopled mainly with male characters. But Mr. Lehrer, the highly regarded television journalist who is also an astonishingly prolific novelist, is mining a different vein from Mr. Bausch’s somber realism. His story is breezy, satirical and, astutely observant (though not, as the cover oddly proclaims it, a “mystery.”)

One-Eyed Mack, the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma who has been featured in several previous books, is working at his desk in the capitol building when his friend, Luther, calls with the bizarre news that the governor has just declared on “political-anger radio” his intention to privatize the entire state government - prisons, schools, roads and bridges, tax collecting, welfare (“what little there ought to be of it”), the highway patrol, the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, even the lieutenant governor himself. Before long, the indignant Mack is challenging his boss in the upcoming election.

Mr. Lehrer, who spends much of his professional life in conversation with journalists and government types, has a good ear for their talk and a serious appreciation for the work they do. In fact, beyond the gentle humor of his improbable plot, Mr. Lehrer vents some real passion.

Who, in the world of privatized government, Mack asks himself, would “perform the important duties of lieutenant governor? Who will go out there among the people and offer regrets and respect at floods and fandangles …who will address the Ruritan, Kiwanis, Lions, and Rotary clubs of Oklahoma on the need for good and active citizenship?”

And in a more serious vein, on a radio talk-show, Mack fumes, “If, in fact, our state government is privatized, we the people will lose all control over how our own government is operated. Taking care of our less fortunate, our schools, and our roads and bridges will not be done for the collective good but for the good of the people and companies who operate them … to suggest the way to improve the government is to get rid of it is what they said during a recent war. You remember that line? In order to save the village we had to destroy it. I say that the state of Oklahoma is not a Vietnam village. I also say that to privatize the whole state government is not just throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it is throwing out the bathtub, the faucets and, most importantly, the careful and caring hands that bathed the baby… .”

Mr. Lehrer’s concerns may be serious but his tone is consistently gentle rather than raw. Where Mr. Bausch peppers his soldiers’ language with four-letter words, Mr. Lehrer (who served in the Marine Corps himself) conveys the salty talk of his politicos obliquely.

Mr. Lehrer grew up next door, in Texas, and he shows palpable affection for Oklahoma, filling his pages with wonderful place names, not just Muskogee, Tulsa and Norman, but Adabel, Woodward, Guymon, Poteau, Blackwell, Julie, Utoka and more.

Behind his genteel tone one senses the intelligent respect for public service, for journalism and for simple human decency that make Jim Lehrer welcome in so many homes on so many evenings.

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Isabel Fonseca’s debut novel, Attachment (Knopf, $23.95,288 pages), is altogether different. Ms. Fonseca, the author of “Bury Me Standing,” a well-reviewed study of modern-day gypsies, and the wife of British novelist Martin Amis, has written a long, ambitious study of a woman in midlife.

Jean Hubbard, an American, is a writer, a columnist on women’s health, married to Mark, an Englishman, the founder and creative force behind an innovative ad agency. Together, they have moved from London to the tiny, fictional Indian Ocean island of St. Jacques. Their college-aged daughter, Victoria cares for their Camden Town home, and computers allow them to pursue their careers. It sounds heavenly.

Except that, as anyone might, Jean inadvertently opens a piece of mail addressed to her husband and finds inside a letter that begins, “Missing you already, Sexy beast …” and sets up a “4 your eyes only” e-mail account.

Jean’s impulse is to confront her husband right away but, as luck would have it, he’s “barricaded in the bathroom” and she has to leave for an appointment. So, later that day, having completed her business in town, she visits an Internet cafe, guesses the secret password the letter suggests, and, pretending to be Mark, responds via e-mail.

What follows is a well-written, sinuous plot that unfolds on three continents. There are interesting observations about the pornography the secret correspondence features (“how in the world could it be boring and arousing at the same time? Perhaps because porno couldn’t be tender?”), about ex-pat life (” ‘escaping the rat race’ was the way people generally described their year-round binge”), about jealousy, marriage, and aging.

Thinking about an old boyfriend, Jean feels she’s “picking over the past like a shoreline, searching out the good shells and the green glass and (always ambitious, ever curious) the bottled message.” The August 2003 blackout in New York City is beautifully evoked - the panic, the warm conviviality, the entrepreneur already selling “I survived the Blackout” t-shirts by the light of a flashlight.

Ultimately, though, “Attachment” disappoints. The novel’s title, it would seem, refers at least as much to the pictures that accompany smutty e-mails as to relationships between people, and while Jean’s situation initially arouses the reader’s sympathy, her relentless focus on it and on herself grows wearisome.

Her husband, a funny, talented guy who leaves his boxers on the bathroom floor and sometimes drinks too much, never really engages her interest. Jean’s feelings for him remain secondary to everything else in her life and the reader can’t help but think that that, rather than his presumed infidelity, may be the real problem in their marriage and in Jean’s arid life.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

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