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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 11, 1995|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

A GARDEN STORY by Leon Whiteson. (Faber & Faber: $18.95; 167 pp.) In 1987, Whiteson, architecture critic and fiction writer, decides to make something of his Hollywood back yard. He is working on a novel at the time, daydreaming about faraway places like the Aegean and the Turkish coast and the section of eastern Spain between Valencia and Alicante and all the places he has lived: "Zimbabwe, South Africa, England, Spain, Greece and Canada." He lives in Hollywood, but he doesn't yet live there. "Los Angeles," he writes, "is altogether an act of imaginative, willful invention, a habitable fantasia written large in a semidesert landscape."

Making the novel isn't going well, so Whiteson wanders into his back yard and begins to sketch what he calls a "green novel," his garden. And what a garden it is, home to pencil trees and cape honeysuckle and jasmine and bougainvillea and tree tobacco bushes and California toyon and wooden cows and an old harmonium and weeping cassias; a red wooden train and a clay goat, a Buddha and a totem pole. He is a driven gardener, and when he rests or even sleeps in his garden, he feels refreshed and rejuvenated. He burns the novel, and this, too, gives him energy. The garden becomes "Paradisus volupatis," "Jannat ' adn," "garden of perpetual bliss," "realm of primal delight," "green walls" that stand "between me and the orgy of rampant violence ruling the streets."

And there is another motivation for Whiteson's gardening, a memory of his father: "When I was a boy watching my father garden, I always felt a current of sadness coming off his stiff body. He was a sentimental man whose sentiments had curdled in his breast, and the tears locked up in his heart were bitter." "I have to be careful not to enjoy this too much," Whiteson writes in an odd moment reminiscent of his father's sad restraint, but in the end, he cannot help himself. "Yes, this garden is my own true Paradise . . . it has the form of that imagined Eve who comes toward me now. . . . Her flesh gives off a female heat . . . and the smell of her warm body nourishes my heart."

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