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Paperback Originals

June 15, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Available Press--a refreshingly understated trademark, I think--is the imprint under which Ballantine Books publishes works of special but arguably narrow interest: first novels, contemporary fiction in translation, early or obscure or underappreciated work by authors of recent celebrity. Where else, for example, will we find the work of a Brazilian physician who is gifted with deep compassion and scalpel-sharp wit, a Missouri-born woman who wandered the world before settling in Brooklyn to write what must be the definitive novel about pigeon-flying, or a Catalan graphic designer turned war correspondent and now fabulist storyteller? Each of these authors is published by The Available Press, and each of their books is a small treasure--masterful, surprising, superbly realized and handsomely presented in the trade paperback format.

The One-Man Army by Moacyr Scliar ($5.95), translated by Eloah F. Giacomelli, is the best example of the marvelous serendipity of The Available Press. Scliar, a Brazilian doctor, recounts the tragicomic tale of Mayer Guinzberg, a turn-of-the-century Jewish refugee from the Kishinev pogrom who flees to Porto Alegre, not Ellis Island. Mayer's passion for "the building of a new society" earns him the derisive sobriquet, "Captain Birobidjan"--a reference to the failed Soviet experiment in building a Jewish socialist homeland in Asia. Indeed, Mayer is a zany sort of revolutionary whose only reliable comrades are a goat, a pig, and a crowd of "little men" who provide the invisible cheers and silent applause that sustain the marginal sanity of this failed Trotsky, this 20th-Century Don Quixote. No pasaran! is Mayer's cry as he struggles against the hypocrisy of his friends, the distractions of his family, the weakness of his flesh, and--finally--the ultimate reality of death.

Scliar, author of "The Centaur in the Garden" and "The Carnival of the Animals" (also published by The Available Press), deserves to be compared to Joseph Heller and Phillip Roth and Mordecai Richler and maybe George Orwell--he is a wickedly funny satirist, but always a deeply compassionate one, and his Captain Birobidjan is a poignant rather than a laughable figure. Indeed, "The One Man Army" is a Brazilian variant of the comic Jewish novel that has become a genre of its own in American letters. But it is also something more--a new and unexpected rendering of the Jewish immigrant experience, a vivid depiction of European political utopianism as it is transplanted into the hothouse of South America, and, above all, an exploration of a certain kind of passion that transcends mere sex or politics or religion but incorporates all of them.

The mean streets and sweltering rooftops of Brooklyn in the late '50s are the setting of Caught by Jane Schwartz ($5.95), a novel about the coming of age of a young girl who brazens her way into the wholly masculine world of pigeon flying. The endearing Louie is 10 years old, a scrappy tomboy who is willing to literally risk life and limb to prove her worthiness to enter the treacherous world of the urban birders. "I liked birds and I liked to watch them fly," Louie tells us, "but in the beginning, the main reason I followed them up there was just because I wanted to go everywhere they went and do everything they do." But her initiation into the rituals of pigeon-flying--under the tutelage of her 38-year-old mentor, the streetwise and seemingly unsentimental Casey--turns out to be a rite of passage from childhood into a world where all games are played for keeps.

"If you're the type of person that gets upset because someone catches one of your birds, you shouldn't be up here," Casey teaches her. " 'Cause that's the way of life here, you know what I mean? The guy that taught me, he was a real old-timer. He told me this saying: 'You catch, you lose. You lose, you catch.' Either way, that's the end of it."

Jane Schwartz allows us to witness the most intimate passions of a girl whose innocent childhood is fast receding as she acquires knowledge--of self, of sexuality, of death. What Casey teaches her is ostensibly about the intricacies of pigeon-flying--and, for that matter, "Caught" is memorable because it celebrates a kind of tenement falconry that is disappearing from the American cityscape. But the relationship between Casey and Louie is far richer and more complex, deeply tinged with sexuality, and full of revelation. Toward the end of Louie's story, when she is about to be separated from Casey and his pigeons because her parents have bought a home in the suburbs, she discovers her first menstrual blood. "When I told Ma, later in the day, she said it was a sign that I was growing up, that wonderful things were about to happen to me," Louie recalls. "But she was wrong, and I knew it. It was just the opposite. Everything was over for me now."

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