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STERN MEN By Elizabeth Gilbert; Houghton Mifflin: 304 pp., $24

KRUPP'S LULU By Gordon Lish; Four Walls Eight Windows: 192 pp., $22

FRESH AIR FIEND; Travel Writings By Paul Theroux; Houghton Mifflin: 466 pp., $27

May 14, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

What can a writer do with characters that are as famously buttoned up as Maine lobstermen? How do you make them live, much less track mud across the pages, and still convey their full inaccessibility?

Sometimes it's pain that makes people inaccessible, and pain can make a good story, but sometimes characters' dignity and dimension depend on their reticence; they just can't be flayed, even for fiction. Letting characters be who they are may be a step on fiction's evolutionary ladder--less moral baggage, less authorial control, less proselytizing, less explanation. Perhaps Freud's enormous influence on fiction is fading. Authors and characters are freed from the couch, from revelation and confession, released into a brave new world of uncertainty and randomness: a chaos theory for literature.

Elizabeth Gilbert's Maine lobstermen ("stern men" refers to their position on a lobster boat) carry family feuds over fishing rights, love and murder between two neighboring islands in their genes. Community dramas are played out in living blood (your child's child is my child's child's enemy) and stretch over centuries. Lobstering, we learn in this novel, is a mean-spirited territorial profession. Rage leads to drinking which leads to fighting which leads to revenge, a cycle of life. The richest family on one island--the Ellises--have controlled the life of the novel's heroine, Ruth Thomas, and her mother's life and her mother's before her. Ruth, all of 18, puts her foot down; she will not let them own her. Ruth loves her island with a heroine's passionate wisdom, but she falls in love with a boy from the enemy island, the enemy clan. There's Sarah Orne Jewett in Gilbert's tender descriptions of these violent and complicated communities. There's Romeo and Juliet in the drama of the young lovers. Gilbert stands by her stoics. There is no foppery here, in the style or the story.

KRUPP'S LULU By Gordon Lish; Four Walls Eight Windows: 192 pp., $22

Speaking of foppery, Gordon Lish is a piece of work. You've heard for decades about his est session-like writing group in Manhattan, loved and hated in equal measure but talked about much. His style has been persistently in your face; iconoclast scrawled permanently on his forehead. "To obey the word is to proceed murder by murder -- Edmond Jabes" reads the frontispiece to this collection of stories, a sort of carte blanche to their author to break any and all rules of syntax, grammar and trust. More honest is the quote appearing at the book's end: "Thou art not August unless I make thee so -- Wallace Stevens," a gleeful expression let out like a belch at the very end, as though the author were exclaiming: Hah! I control this show even as I appear to be unraveling before you! It's not Lish's fault the world needs iconoclasts; it's the corruption of art; it's they who would keep the artist silent who make a pressure cooker of culture, letting off steam like Lish. "And guess who the loser is?" Lish writes in the story "Facts of Steel." "Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public." Trouble with Lish is he's always making fun of everything. Everything he writes has the same sarcastic look-at-me, I-am-hurt tone. Which is too bad, because with just a little texture (I am not asking for plot or voice, just a little variety) and some literary largess on your part, you could fancy Lish Montaigne, writing essays that poked fun at literature and culture in order to change something. But because he writes at his readers, it's hardly worth it. *

FRESH AIR FIEND; Travel Writings By Paul Theroux; Houghton Mifflin: 466 pp., $27

To be a writer, Paul Theroux claims, you have to leave home. (There's another school of writers--E.L. Doctorow most famously--who claim that a white wall and a typewriter can fertilize a story.) Theroux, not finding himself in fiction, left home in his early 20s (the early '60s) to join the Peace Corps in Africa. He stayed there for five years, then went to Singapore to finish the decade. The next 30 years were spent wandering and paddling and writing--Cape Cod, the Zambezi, the Yangtze; "profound cold" in the Maine woods, a leper colony in Hawaii--it seems, reading this collection of pieces from tony magazines like Vogue and National Geographic, from 1985 to the present, that Theroux can put his arms around the world. He has, in some quarters, a reputation for crankiness; he doesn't embrace, for example, the information age ("we have confused information with ideas"), but I think it's more a question of rigor. Theroux is demanding of himself ("writers are notoriously unhealthy") to a reader's advantage, and of the merits of travel writing, which at its worst, is a sloppy and trivial form. At its best, he writes, it can "express a country's heart," and these essays describe how.

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