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First Fiction

August 20, 2000|MARK ROZZO

AN OBEDIENT FATHER

By Akhil Sharma

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 282 pp., $23

Ram Karan, the odious aging antihero of Akhil Sharma's challenging debut, is the kind of small-time bureaucrat you'd expect in Gogol: He's fat, he drinks too much, he's obsequious, he's cunning, he's lazy, he's loyal only to his paycheck and, by the way, he's a pedophile. Amazingly, Sharma manages to elevate Ram beyond a compelling caricature; there is, believe it or not, a core of decency inside this shame-ridden fellow, whose vile habits--as Ram would like us to believe--appear to be dictated by forces beyond his easily overwhelmed control. Ram, a school inspector in Delhi, takes bribes for the Congress Party; but there's another kind of corruption at the heart of Sharma's story: Ram once had relations with his daughter, Anita, who has moved back to Ram's flat with her young daughter, Asha. Upon the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Ram gets sucked into a potentially deadly plan to switch party allegiances just as he teeters perilously close to a sexual relapse. In the midst of these damnable compromises and Anita's campaign to get the justice she deserves, Ram pulls off acts of kindness that may be calculated to assuage his conscience but whose results are nonetheless genuine. (He saves a Sikh family from certain death at the hands of a mob.) Sharma's portrait of Ram is alarmingly complex; just when you want to see him get offed by his political rivals, Ram reminds you of his compassion, helplessness and honesty. The effect is to make India itself a co-villain and "An Obedient Father" a ferocious critique of a violently incestuous system.

*

IRON SHOES

By Molly Giles

Simon & Schuster: 240 pp., $22

Molly Giles is the author of two highly praised short story collections and her novel, about a 40-year-old woman's struggle to come to grips with her imperious parents, is as taut as a well-turned short story. Yet Giles builds this deceptively simple tale about complicated emotions with an undeniable novelistic momentum that finds Kay, her middle-aged adolescent heroine, finally reaching toward reconciliation and redemption--no small feat in a family in which an invite for coffee and cake is a loaded gesture. For the most part, the inclement familial weather is generated by the ice-cold, unpredictable Ida, Kay's bedridden mother, whose glamorous past serves only to mock her in her reduced present: Ida has had both legs amputated after a string of illnesses, and it's as if the sudden impulse to pity this Dorothy Parker-like matriarch has thrown both Kay and her ruthlessly sarcastic father, Francis, completely out of whack. When Ida starts blurting out such endearing remarks to Kay as "We tried to abort you," we realize that Ida is both sinking fast into a dangerously consequence-free oblivion and trying desperately to settle her earthly accounts with reckless honesty. Indeed, as death crowds in, the truth is increasingly wielded like a machete by Ida, Francis and even the bottled-up Kay, who begins to re-explore her long slumbering sexuality and her lost career as a concert pianist. Emotional bloodletting, as Giles shows in this subtly moving novel, can be as purgative as it is devastating.

*

AN OBVIOUS ENCHANTMENT

By Tucker Malarkey

Random House: 404 pp., $22.95

The title of Tucker Malarkey's confident novel alludes to a passage from the Koran about recognizing the truth: "And those who deny the truth / When it comes down to them say, / 'This is obvious enchantment.' " For Ingrid Holtz, Malarkey's grad student heroine, the kinds of truth she seeks on the tiny island of Pelat on Africa's Swahili Coast are likewise subject to accusations of hocus-pocus. Ingrid is a budding cultural anthropologist, and she has come to Pelat to find Nick Templeton, her erratic and brilliant University of Michigan advisor, who is attempting to rewrite the history of Islam by tracing the religion's roots to a possibly mythical African king. Templeton's theory has the irresistible ring of a tall tale and as Ingrid looks for evidence to back it up, she soon succumbs to Pelat's rhythms: the nightly array of Eurotrash who gather at the Hotel Salama, the prayer calls of the muezzin and the lithe figure of Finn Bergmann, a blond fisherman whose late father emigrated from Denmark to build the Salama. But the more Ingrid goes with the flow, the more she experiences equatorial delirium: Templeton has made himself scarce; the Eurotrash are caught up in hopeless intrigues; and Finn steals into her bed at night but won't lay a finger on her. As the island air thickens with sexual and cultural forboding, Ingrid's academic universe collides with the reality of ancient feuds and modern compromises, making this novel, with its shades of Bowles, Maugham and Jacqueline Susann (in the best way), an edifying--and, yes, enchanting--tale of hazardous border crossings.

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