Weedy Louisiana: Bayous, beignets, alligators, saucy humor, spicy food, a no-man's land of race relations; and this is only the fertile background for one of the most compelling voices in fiction of the last decade. Meely is short for Emile, the 15-year-old son of an alligator hunter with a broken heart, Meely's mother having died in childbirth when he was 7.
Meely's father disappears in the swamp, from which he emerges every couple of weeks or so with a woman, or better, a bag of groceries. Other than that, Meely hunts for everything he eats. He goes to school when he feels like it, mostly for the cafeteria lunch. He has a rich friend whose family owns cane fields and a poor friend named Chickie, "though people at school say Chickie ain't got no friends so maybe we're not friends after all." Meely eats crawfish and rabbits and snakes and frogs and you name it what all.
"I have seen fresh-skinned frogs jump out of the skillet if the grease is hot enough," he claims. As for Daddy, Ken Wells provides a sweet, neglectful relationship there: "I s'pect Daddy could find God if God is to be found," he muses when the police are out looking for his father. "Daddy can track 'most anything."
THE VISION OF EMMA BLAU By Ursula Hegi; Simon & Schuster: 432 pp., $25
This is a great saga-wurst of a novel, a generational smorgasbord, a Virginia Reel of a novel, with its complex family at the core, springing from the dreams of a young man who runs away to America from Germany in the late 1800s. He works in a restaurant; it burns down. He starts his own on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee. He marries; she dies in childbirth. He marries again; she dies shortly after childbirth. Children drown; ghosts lodge in the apartment building he builds on the lake.
Ursula Hegi fills the building, like an old hotel, with families and their children and their children's children down through generations. Ghosts lodge in the spirits of children, particularly in Emma Blau, the beloved granddaughter of the patriarch. But in the end, there are too many balls in the air; they don't spin quickly enough to abandon their individual orbits and blend into one continuous loop, as they must to hold the book together.
THE DANISH GIRL By David Ebershoff; Viking: 278 pp., $23.95
Einar Wegener, fragile, lost, a Danish painter in the late 1800s, is drawn into a delicate dance with his wife, Greta, a wealthy, raw-boned, plein-air Pasadena woman who is also a painter. From the time she first asks him to put on a dress and pose for him, his personality begins to split. He is Lilly, and he is Einar. Greta is the rebellious heiress (modeled, from at least one anecdote, on novelist Harriet Doerr; an early snapshot of Greta's life is, in almost every detail, taken from Doerr's). The novel wallows a bit in the fetishistic, obsessive details, made less appealing only because David Ebershoff is so much better at evoking atmosphere: atelier life in Copenhagen, or the power the memories of oak trees and orange groves can have over a painter.
Who is really harmed by Einar dressing as a woman is an excellent question, though it becomes clear that it harms Einar. Greta's generosity and love for him are nourishing, but the neurotic codependency of their situation empties the heart. Greta's painting feeds off his cross-dressing in a dazzling, complex and dizzying dervish.
THE MYSTERIES WITHIN A Surgeon Reflects on Medical Myths By Sherwin B. Nuland; Simon & Schuster: 286 pp., $24
"The purpose of this book," Sherwin Nuland, author of "How We Die," explains in a supremely rational way, "is to explore the journey that superstition, religion and medicine have taken in one another's company." Nuland writes a delightful resume of the internal organs: the stomach, the liver, the spleen, the heart. Chapters, divided among these organs, contain Nuland's personal experiences and his prodigious study of medicine's earliest philosophers: Hippocrates, Galen, Van Helmont and others. Some of the surgeon's revelations can be chilling, if only because of the precise way the scientific mind wrests control from the emotions.
He is best when he loses himself in the wonder of his profession, for example when, during a heart surgery early in his career, he got lost in the heart's magnificence and a fellow surgeon had to bring his attention back to the procedure. Each organ has a personality; the liver is amusing, the spleen enigmatic and the heart urgent. "Religion," he concludes in no uncertain terms, "does not belong in the laboratory, but it should have an honored place at the bedside." Even the expansiveness of this pronouncement betrays a vaulted, sometimes distant, perspective.