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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 28, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

AMERICAN HEAVEN by Maxine Chernoff (Coffee House Press: $21.95, 256 pp.) In a posh lakeside apartment building in Chicago, an elderly African American jazz pianist, Harrison Waters, is cared for by an emigre Polish mathematician, Irena Bozinska--the only job she has been able to find in the United States. In the same building, a Jewish ex-gangster and real estate mogul, Jack Kaufman, is dying of cancer, tended by his sad-faced moll, Elizabeth O'Conner. Meanwhile, back in Warsaw, Irena's ex-lover, Joszef, flounders in her absence, losing her beloved cat, Chopin, and finally falling into the arms of her former best friend. Her mother, Lina, plots to get Irena to return. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Jack's grandson, Adam, videotapes the old man telling his life's story--a tale of corruption and murder, but also one of shrewdness, and vitality and a kind of honor.

We can easily imagine what another author--Saul Bellow or Stanley Elkin--would do with this situation. Maxine Chernoff, instead of irony and alienation, emphasizes the humor of these people coming together and the humanity they find in one another, however reluctantly. Chernoff has a first-rate ear for voices--Jack's gruff philosophizing, Irena's melodiously broken English, Lina's artfully wheedling letters. Does "American Heaven" get a bit too sweet at times? Maybe. Yet it remains that uncommon achievement, a novel that gives us more fun than we bargained for.

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