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FICTION : NO EARTHLY NOTION by Susan Dodd (Viking: $15.95; 224 pp.).

August 24, 1986|Mary Rourke

A first novel is a delicate object, to be appreciated simply because a writer managed to make it. And I do appreciate Susan Dodd's accomplishments in "No Earthly Notion." This creative writing instructor at the well-known Iowa school displays her competence as structuralist, mood setter and illustrator of character.

She presents Murana Bill, an orphaned young woman who takes it upon herself to care for her younger brother, Lyman Gene, when he returns from World War II an emotionally disabled veteran.

Sister is devoted to Brother in a way that recalls the Victorian era. Rather than idealize the relationship, as the Victorians would, Dodd shows how it can go wrong.

Lyman Gene never leaves the house or utters a word, though he has no physical impediment. He turns sullen, sluggish, obese, tyrannical. Murana accepts it all.

The book's major disappointment is sealed when Lyman Gene dies and Murana has still learned nothing about herself.

History is recycled when she forms a friendship with Lucille, who is dying of cancer.

There are heavy-handed hints that Murana might at last assert herself, with Lucille's encouragement. But the changes she makes are superficial and only frustrate a reader's wish to see significant movement. Passive, unquestioning, offended by cuss words--along with most forms of honesty--Murana appears destined to continue as she is.

Without creating a sympathetic character, Dodd seems to expect that we sympathize, and even accept her. That is asking too much.

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