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A DANGEROUS FRIEND; By Ward Just; Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $25

The Best Books of 1999 | THE BEST FICTION OF 1999

December 05, 1999

"The Stones Cry Out" won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan and is the first of Hikaru Okuizumi's novels to be translated into English. It is the story of Tsuyoshi Manase, whose wartime experiences in the Philippines have created twin veins of delight and horror that run beneath the landscape of his life. With a few restrained strokes, Okuizumi tackles the legacy of World War II and the uncertain possibility of absolution. Smoothly translated by James Westerhoven, Okuizumi's prose is full of glassy surfaces that tilt to reveal vertigo-inducing depths. His characters are allegorical figures of Japan's past and present, and his message seems to be that there is no redemption for the horrors of war, no way to lay nightmarish memories to rest. "Manase's landscapes were worm-eaten. The canvases had black holes that became wider every day." There are only his beloved stones, hard and unforgiving but hiding radiance behind their dull exteriors.

STILL WATERS IN NIGER; By Kathleen Hill; Triquarterly Books / Northwestern University Press: 206 pp., $24.95

In a fundamental sense, all novels can be said to be about journeys: journeys into other lives, minds, families, places; journeys through time, with its powerful capacity to mold and mystify, to contain meaning and to obscure it; journeys--often--of the self, in which a character seeks to learn how he came to be who he is, and why.

Kathleen Hill's resonant and probing first novel, "Still Waters in Niger," charts an actual journey that the first-person narrator, an unnamed mother, takes to Niger to visit her grown daughter, Zara, who is working at the Centre Medical in Matameye, caring for the sick, many of them starving or dehydrated children. Embedded in this journey is a preceding journey that the narrator took to Niger 17 years earlier when she and her husband, Mike, and their three daughters lived there for a year while Mike collected material for a dissertation. Haunted by these coupled visits to Africa, the narrator ends up traveling as much through its desert landscape as she does through less tangible places: time and memory; the complex links between mothers and daughters; the relationship between a mature woman and her earlier, more fearful, elusive self. Although "Still Waters in Niger" is modest in plot, it is abundant in understanding.

"What matters is continuity," the narrator remarks of the people of Niger, "the things that bind one generation to another, whatever remains after the worst has been done."

The same might be said of the narrator and her daughter. Continuity and the binding of generations: Whether explored in remote, exotic Niger or in the confines of family life, these are Hill's abiding concerns in her elegantly evocative book.

DUANE'S DEPRESSED; By Larry McMurtry; Simon & Schuster: 432 pp., $26

Larry McMurtry had a well-publicized bout of depression while working on "Streets of Laredo," the sequel to "Lonesome Dove." Rather than write about the experience directly, as William Styron did in "Darkness Visible," he uses it here to conclude the Thalia trilogy on an elegiac note--yet with plenty of comedy mixed in, and in prose as casual and baggy as an old pair of jeans.

Though "Duane's Depressed" stands on its own, it helps to have read the first two novels. Once vital and lusty characters have aged into eccentrics; old feuds and love affairs have faded--and properly so, McMurtry indicates. The past is a trap. Duane's friend and rival, Sonny Crawford, never got over local beauty Jacy Farrow; now he sits immobile in the convenience store he owns, feet blackening with gangrene. Sonny, too, is depressed--Duane starts to recognize depression everywhere. But why is he depressed, when it seems that he has successfully outrun the past?

After reading this novel, one emerges with the thought that we have got something--glimpses, here and there, of what might be wisdom. American literature has never had much truck with wisdom--only with the "road of excess" that William Blake claimed would lead us to it. So we have no end-of-road novels, excesses galore. This book is different. In its modest, ramshackle, aw-shucks way, it feels like a destination.

LAST THINGS; By Jenny Offill; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 264 pp., $23

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