John Updike, assisted by Katrina Kenison, has produced a compendium of prize-winning stories, spanning the century and the continent, that manages to be a page-turner in its own right, beyond the value of the separate fictions gathered here. A fascinating plot runs from story to story that makes reading the book in order, with no jumps or skips, surprisingly rewarding as a meditation on this American century. The plot line is history itself, of course, the evidence year by year, decade to decade, of the life of the imagination contending with the life of the continent as it has unfolded over time, through wars, Depression and consumerism, from a lonely rural experience to a jammed urban consciousness. A wise teacher of 20th century American history might assign this anthology, story by story, as a kind of choral voice for the interior feeling of the century as it has cycled through the decades. But "themes" are not the point of this anthology. The real pleasure--and instruction--of reading the stories in chronological order is to follow the changing American voice across time.
BURIED ONIONS; By Gary Soto; HarperCollins: 160 pp., $11
Here's a real book about Southern California and about commitment. The image behind this novel's title is a giant onion, "that remarkable bulb of sadness," buried under the streets of Fresno that makes everyone cry. It starts with two deaths, two out of many that Eddie, 19 years old, has seen: Those of his friend Juan, whose head was caught in the giant rollers of a steel foundry, and his cousin Jesus, who is summarily knifed in a men's room over a comment about a homey's shoes. "Noon glared like a handful of dimes," writes Gary Soto, looking at the street the way his characters do. Friends and family members want Eddie to show his respect for his dead cousin by getting revenge. "Respect. That word got more people buried than the word love." This is the story of Eddie's efforts to resist the hamster-wheel of violence and crime that sucks up Mexican boys in Fresno, to commit to his own worth. "I wanted to sprint straight into the future," he thinks, "but I kept going in circles." Soto's writing is crystal-clear, his metaphors fresh, his language vivid and true.
JUNETEENTH; By Ralph Ellison; Random House: 354 pp., $25
"History has put to us three fatal questions, has written them across our sky in accents of accusation," Sen. Adam Sunraider shouts from the well of the Senate in Ralph Ellison's posthumous "Juneteenth." "They are, How can the many be as one? How can the future deny the Past? And How can the light deny the dark?" The year is 1955, and the "us" that the senator refers to is the American people. And the three questions the senator asks can be lumped under the great American rubric of Race. The answer the senator gives is as paradoxically Orwellian as it is American--"In dark days look steadily on the darker side, for there is where brightness sometimes hides itself." And it is doubly provocative--for Sen. Sunraider, although he represents one of the states of New England, has a national reputation as a race-baiter, an implacable foe to black man, woman and child. Nevertheless, his answer to the three fatal questions is the key to "Juneteenth," a book that threatens to come as close as any since "Huckleberry Finn" to grabbing the ring of the Great American Novel.
EVERY DEAD THING; By John Connolly; Simon & Schuster: 396 pp., $25
Born round the mid-19th century, detective stories replaced the deteriorating magic of the supernatural. Witchcraft, spells, ghosts and fairies were fading. Crime stories re-created mystery when mystery was waning: The dark forests of robbers and witches gave way to the somber thickets of criminal souls, the exoticism of unexplored wastes translated into the hunting grounds of native ogres. John Connolly provides ogres aplenty. And witches, too. Gripping is a word that should be used sparingly. But Connolly's first novel is a spellbinding book. Informed but uncluttered, it holds the reader fast in a comfortless stranglehold. "Every Dead Thing" is a tale of carnage and pursuit: of a demented and sadistic killer inflicting pain and fear, his trail of flayed and dissected corpses, the hurt and rage that he leaves behind; and of the retired NYPD detective who is his victim and his nemesis. Chock-full with local color, art history, travel notes, love and love lost, friendship and friends betrayed, gangsters good and bad, cops idem and many eloquent horrors, the plot ranges from Maine to Cajun Country, from Manhattan to New Orleans, distempering all it touches with malaise. As in real life, death brings no resolution, only grief. And a question: Why must nice characters hurt when evil ones die by their hand?
L.A. BREAKDOWN; By Lou Mathews; The British Book Co.: 252 pp., $24.95