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First Fiction

BODEGA DREAMS By Ernesto Quinonez; Vintage: 214 pp., $12 paper

KEENELAND By Alyson Hagy; Simon & Schuster: 270 pp., $23

ALTAR MUSIC By Christin Lore Weber; Scribner: 252 pp., $23

March 26, 2000|MARK ROZZO

BODEGA DREAMS By Ernesto Quinonez; Vintage: 214 pp., $12 paper

In this remarkable debut, Ernesto Quinonez creates a portrait of Spanish Harlem that's as colorful and elegiac as the R.I.P.s that Chino, his straight-talking 20-something narrator, once painted for fallen neighbors as a teenage graffiti artist. But Chino's graffiti days are over: He's putting himself through college and he has married the girl of his dreams. Yet despite Chino's efforts to get ahead, he can't forsake his ties to Sapo, his frog-like best friend from junior high who now runs errands for the legendary and mysterious Willie Bodega. Bodega is El Barrio's Robin Hood and John Gotti--a guy who, according to Chino, "had an unforgettable blend of nobility and street, as if God never made up his mind whether to have Bodega born a leader or a hood." Indeed, Bodega is both: a former fighter for "Que Pasa Power" who now secures his position as a drug kingpin by renovating apartment buildings, paying for educations and generally ennobling El Barrio. Chino is inevitably seduced by Bodega and his Gatsby-like schemes, even as they endanger everything he's worked so hard to achieve. In Quinonez's capable hands, the voice of Chino--ever oscillating between awe and fear of Bodega--is unflinchingly honest and relentlessly propulsive. Like Bodega, this novel is as charismatic as it is troubling, a "representation of all the ugliness in Spanish Harlem and also all the good it was capable of being."

KEENELAND By Alyson Hagy; Simon & Schuster: 270 pp., $23

"Fighting, gambling, bad love. That's about it for me right now." So says Kerry Connolly, the sharp-as-a-whip heroine of Alyson Hagy's debut, set in Kentucky's Keeneland racetrack. But Kerry, despite this rather bald self-assessment, is not given to easy surrender: Although she's a stable hand and workout rider, she has all the hard-earned grit, guile and bruises of a star jockey. Kerry has just returned to Keeneland from Belmont, where she and her husband, Eric, were making encouraging gains with Sunny, a talented mare poised to win big purses. But Eric turned out to be an abusive jerk, so Kerry left her beloved mare behind, taking off in her Citation (the book is so horsy that even Kerry's car alludes to equestrian greatness) with a small pile of ill-gotten gains related to Eric's shady dealings. This pilfered stash seems to pulse like the black box of a downed aircraft, attracting the attentions of untold pursuers, including Eric, whose memory Kerry tries to bury in the daily grind of training horses, getting into poker games, and being seduced by a studly groom who makes off with the cash. As Kerry's troubles mount, her only refuge is a blazing-fast gelding named Twilight Flare, who, to make life weirder still, is pitted against Sunny in her (and Eric's) return to Keeneland. Despite Hagy's admirable reportage, you occasionally get the feeling here of being a novice at the track: The excitement is palpable, but you're not always sure what precisely is going on. Still, Hagy's Kerry is an inspired creation--a brave woman squeezed between old dreams and new hopes who refuses to drop the reins.

ALTAR MUSIC By Christin Lore Weber; Scribner: 252 pp., $23

Christin Lore Weber is a former nun who has written books on Catholic spirituality, including a feminist meditation on the Rosary. Her first novel is a quiet revelation, charting the paths of several women whose lives intersect with the church, with music and with one another. In remote northern Minnesota, a girl named Elise is born in 1940 to Kate and Michael Pearson. In flashback chapters--each one introduced by a lyrical passage from the music notebooks of one Sister Mary of the Holy Cross--we learn about Kate and Michael's early passion, which Kate's guilt squelches; about Kate's emotional frigidity, which began when a fatal fire claimed her father, baby brother and beloved piano; Kate's mother's lifelong relationship with a kindly parish priest; and Michael's disfiguring war wound.

As Elise matures, she becomes a battleground of sex, God and music; studying piano with Sister Mary, she shows the kind of promise that suggests Juilliard and Carnegie Hall. But Elise pursues another calling, entering the convent, where she comes under the sway of the saintly yet manipulative Mother Thomas Ann. As Mother prevents Elise--now Sister Michelle--from playing piano and fraternizing with her best friend, Sister Celina, Weber illuminates the shadowy side of convent life, where sacrifice and motherly love can be taken too far and where good intentions can mask the darkest impulses. Weber, thank God, isn't interested in the banal sexualizing of Catholic imagery a la Madonna or Abel Ferrara; instead, she has created a delicate and compassionate tone poem about the dangerous entanglement of religion, aesthetics and desire.

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