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First Fiction

May 02, 1999|MARK ROZZO

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

This gem of a first novel traces a year in the life of 8-year-old Grace Davitt. She lives in a cozy house in Vermont, attended to by a baby sitter who studies poisonous molds and by caring parents who are eager to explain the mysteries of the world to her. Her mother, Anna, is convinced that Lake Champlain is inhabited by a serpent, and her version of Natural History makes Pliny's seem tame: She informs Grace that God was an astronaut, that the human soul is "like a worm in an apple" and that "you could fall in love with a zombie and never know until it was too late." This last bit of information is also Anna's assessment of her marriage to Grace's father, an out-of-work teacher who tries to redeem himself by winning the role of TV's "Mr. Science." His sudden careerism and his efforts to steer Grace toward rationality only earn him Anna's scorn, and she takes off with Grace on a cross-country road trip that, by the time it reaches the Burning Man festival, starts to look more like a kidnapping and ultimately forces Grace to make a bitter choice between survival and betrayal. Jenny Offill's prose is exact without being fastidious, a perfect tool for marking each tiny step of Anna's unraveling from kookiness to outright madness.

WHITE OLEANDER; By Janet Fitch; (Little, Brown: 390 pp., $24)

Jenny Fitch's debut is a ferocious, risk-loving novel about a teenage girl's tour of duty through a series of Los Angeles foster homes. The hero and narrator is Astrid Magnussen, who, at age 12, is wholly devoted to her mother, Ingrid, a minor-league poet given to hyperbole: "The skins of the insipid scribblers, which I graft to the page, creating monsters of meaninglessness," she says of her work at a tiny film magazine and hates it; she hates men, too, and earns a life sentence in prison after poisoning her goat-like boyfriend. (She eventually becomes a cult hero.) Meanwhile, the orphaned Astrid embarks on a five-year journey through fostercare that makes for a harrowing L.A. travelogue: There's the trailer with an ex-stripper Jesus-freak and her quiet, sensitive, pedophile boyfriend; the turquoise tract home full of racist suburbanites; the Hollywood bungalow with a meek, wilting actress; and the Chavez Ravine hovel with a loose-living Russian emigre. Each relocation heightens Astrid's bitterness toward her mother yet reaffirms their distant but unbreakable bond. This achy ambivalence--which Fitch wisely refuses to resolve--gives Astrid a curious kind of wisdom as it powers this intimate and epic novel.

CHOCOLATE LIZARDS; By Cole Thompson; (St. Martin's: 250 pp., $22)

This comic novel about the Texas oil country is like a Tex Avery cartoon; it goes about securing our amusement at all costs, dares us to disbelieve its rip-roaringness and ends before we're burnt out. It's about Erwin Vandeveer, a Harvard drama major who, having gone bust in Hollywood, is headed home to Boston on a coast-to-coast bus ride of shame. After losing all his money in a poker game, he steps off the bus in Abilene, Texas, and into the strange world of Merle Luskey, an oil driller with nothing but an endless supply of Jack Daniels to keep him company. Merle immediately hires Erwin to be his "rat-killer": The bank is threatening to repossess Merle's rigs, and he needs Erwin's smarts to help him outwit the crooked forces of foreclosure. In return, Erwin gets some cash, a crash-course in roughnecking and a killer pair of boots--"chocolate lizards" to be exact. Cole Thompson has been an oil man himself, and his weird milieu of wildcat drillers, 3-D seismic testers, brassy Dallas call girls and ornery ranchers edifies us as much as it does Erwin, a good kid who earns his heels.

THE WOMAN IN THE YARD; By Stephen Miller; (Picador USA: 294 pp., $23)

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