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LAURA By Larry Watson; Pocket Books: 326 pp., $24.95

HALF A HEART By Rosellen Brown; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 402 pp., $24

COLTER The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had By Rick Bass; Houghton Mifflin: 188 pp., $22

DREAM KEEPER A Novel of Myth and Destiny in the Pacific Northwest By Morrie Ruvinsky; Sasquatch: 272 pp., $23.95

May 28, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

LAURA By Larry Watson; Pocket Books: 326 pp., $24.95

Larry Watson is a great describer of the longings of men--for love, freedom, a place in history. Previous books, such as "Montana 1948," "White Crosses" and "Justice," are always listed among the best of the West. But "Laura" is a supremely Eastern novel, set in suburbia, in New England, in academia, in the middle class. Laura is a 23-year-old chain-smoking poet whom 11-year-old Paul Finley's father (an editor) brings home to Vermont one summer. Willfully, she makes the young boy fall in love with her. Laura's best quality seems to be that she is brave, physically and emotionally. It's hard to imagine why even a hormonal preteen would fall for this beret-wearing drunken poseur who breaks up their home. In this, I suppose, the novel captures love's obsessive blind side, carried throughout Paul's life, which we see most of. It is more crippling than ennobling. Laura is self-centered and cold, but she shapes that boy because she caught him at a brief, vulnerable, impressionable age. Watson writes it head-on, driving straight through Paul's life, which unfolds honestly and dramatically. But this poetess, I'll tell you, is a bitter pill to swallow.

HALF A HEART By Rosellen Brown; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 402 pp., $24

"She had become a myth to herself--implausible and complacent." So many unforgettable novels begin here, with a trapped soul, moth-like, trying to remember the flame. So many explore life's fulcrums--those points where decisions, mistakes and secrets are made. The characters, such as Miriam Vener in Rosellen Brown's ninth novel (she is the author, most famously, of "Tender Mercies"), spend however long it takes to dig up the truth, reprogram themselves and set a new course. In Miriam's case, the pearl in her soul's oyster is Veronica, the 8-month-old girl she left behind. Miriam is Jewish; Veronica's father is black. They met in the era of SNCC and Black Power, and he angrily convinced Miriam that "his people" would accept Veronica but her people would not. Miriam went on to a new life, three children with a different father, but she could never forget her first daughter. "Half a Heart" is the story of their renewed relationship. It is complicated, clunky in parts, familiar, the way so many books about women's lives can be the same, for better or worse, as one another. But it delivers its truth with sensitivity and humor, and that is this: We begin entwined; we unravel; we can entwine again.

COLTER The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had By Rick Bass; Houghton Mifflin: 188 pp., $22

"Colter was one of the greatest bird dogs that ever lived." In this odd little book, joy and loss play a sweet game of chicken. Colter's eventual death makes the whole book feel like autumn, even in the very beginning when the brown German shorthair, a bird dog, is just a round-bellied puppy. Rick Bass sends him to hunting school (even though the dog has obvious natural genius) and misses him so much he brings him home before the instructor is willing to let the dog go. It's hard to imagine there's anything else in Bass' universe besides this dog and hunting (which, he admits happily, he does 100 days a year). Most of the book is set in the Yaak Valley in Montana where Bass lives, and when they are not hunting, man and dog both dream of hunting. "Colter" is full of tender phrases: my dog, my sweet dog, the best dog a man could ever have. In the end, we couldn't possibly understand how much Bass loved this dog, no matter how well he wrote it or how hard we tried.

DREAM KEEPER A Novel of Myth and Destiny in the Pacific Northwest By Morrie Ruvinsky; Sasquatch: 272 pp., $23.95

The silkie myth--a race of sea lions that can inhabit human form--is a story told with many variations all over the world. In each version, a sea lion falls in love with a human. The love is always splendid and vivid, the revenge brutal. "Dream Keeper" is set in the Pacific Northwest, from the 17th century to the present, entwining the history of the Tlingits, the Kwakiutl, the Haida and others with the Black Robes (Jesuit missionaries who went to the Northwest in the 1600s). Jason Ondine, the 12-year-old son of a missionary, is chosen by the Sisters of Creation (Indian spirits who assume raven, whale, human or other forms) to be immortal. Through the centuries, Jason emerges sometimes as a sea lion, sometimes as a man; in the 1970s, he falls in love with Lizzie Bennett. When she runs away with him, Lizzie's rich Republican parents have her committed to an insane asylum, where she lives for several decades. Morrie Ruvinsky's style is old-fashioned storytelling--part myth, part thriller, part song. It is transporting. It makes you long for animals to talk to.

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