OK, the sun-block has been put away for another year and it's time to turn one's attention to the less frivolous novels of fall. Less frivolous? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it's a mixed bag nonetheless. If "frivolous" translates as "delightful," for instance, then Warren Kiefer's sprawling character study of 90-year-old Lee Garland in Outlaw (Donald I. Fine: $19.95; 517 pp.) wins, hands down. Orphaned at about age 5 when marauding Apaches slaughtered his parents in New Mexico and reared by a Mexican family, young Garland cuts a swath through the Southwest like you wouldn't believe--as rustler, wildcatter, Cuban rough rider with Teddy Roosevelt, ambassador to Mexico, lover and successful banker. Garland does it all with an infectious flair that makes him one of the most delightful protagonists in recent memory. Here is a grizzled, cud-chewing, semi-literate old coot of high principles looking back--with total recall--at a colorful life crisscrossed with both fictional and real-life heroes, scoundrels, scalawags and ne'er-do-wells--and who loved every minute of it. Kiefer, with three previous novels under his belt, has a real sleeper here in this delightful story of a thoroughly delightful man shaped out of the rough clay of New Mexico. You'll love him.
And, Glory be! Finally a "feminist" novel comes along in Ruth Harris's excellent novel, Modern Women (St. Martin's Press: $18.95; 439 pp.) that avoids the "eat 'em alive," "I'll-claw-my-way-over-any-man's-back-to-get-what-I-want" stridency so prevalent today. Here we have three thoroughly believable and likable women from wildly divergent backgrounds "making their way," as popular fiction tags it, through the struggle for sexual equality that began, roughly, with John F. Kennedy's assassination in '63. Through the eyes of Elly, Jane and Lincky (short for Lincoln--her parents wanted a boy that badly) this is the story of the emancipation of today's woman. All began their careers in New York City at about the same time . . . they have their love affairs, their marriages . . . and their paths cross and recross. This is a thoroughly delightful tale of what is was like to be young, ambitious and in love during an exciting period of history. Harris has captured the mood, the flavor and the excitement of the '60s and '70s beautifully.
When Los Angeles clinical psychologist Jonathan Kellerman turned his considerable skills to the suspense novel a short four years ago with "When the Bough Breaks," he also created a likable and credible protagonist in Dr. Alex Delaware who has developed an understandably wide following.
Kellerman's latest, Silent Partner (Bantam Books: $18.95; 416 pp.) brings Delaware to the front again in a complex and haunting story of tangled personalities, deeply buried family secrets and of violence lying thinly under the surface of people seemingly immune to such passions. No longer a detached observer of what quirky and deadly behavior old traumas can create, Delaware in "Silent Partner" is up to his eyebrows, personally, in this one as he carries a guilt complex of monumental proportions around his neck. Who wouldn't when an old love seeks your help at a cocktail party, you politely decline and, the next day, she's dead? As always, Kellerman's familiarity with Los Angeles brings the city to throbbing life and his deft touch with characterization extends even to minor characters with walk-on roles. There's a bit with a gay, retired cop dying of AIDS that hits the reader right between the eyes. The mystery behind his ex-lover's death is a twisty path--leading to a wealthy, elderly couple with one of the world's most extensive pornography collections, to a retarded farm couple living in a corrugated lean-to, but with a steady monthly income, to a reclusive billionaire still meddling in lives from beyond the grave.