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First Fiction

October 15, 2000|MARK ROZZO

THE GREEN SUIT

By Dwight Allen

Algonquin: 274 pp., $22.95

Each of the 11 chapters in Dwight Allen's impressive debut--a progression of stories about a Kentucky-born baby-boomer named Peter Sackrider, who seems both continually aloft in indecision and firmly planted in rueful self-awareness--could stand alone. But it's the way they resonate with one another that gives this quiet book its affecting murmur of whispered truths that somehow get heard above the buzz of ordinary lives. And Peter is nothing if not ordinary--an above-average kid from an above-average suburb of Louisville who tends to get himself mixed up in situations that may be little more than above average too, but which, in Allen's hands, crystallize into telling tableaux of growing (and not growing) up. We witness Peter in the summer of 1970 handing his draft card over to his won't-put-out high school girlfriend, who promptly chews it up; later moving to Manhattan, where he develops an unlikely rapport with a guy in pimpy clothes named Elvin; and, eventually, after heading out to the burbs, letting a potentially wacko neighbor get too close to his wife, son and baby-sitter. Midway through, Peter hands off the narration to the various principals in his life, including an ex-girlfriend who provides hilarious commentary on previously reported events.

There's a gentle brio to Allen's writing that captures the bemusement of his self-deprecating hero's encounter with the Me Decade and its aftermath. As a fledgling journalist, Peter gives this blunt assessment of his work: "The sentences I'd written sat there like fat geese waiting to be shot." Unlike his alter ego, Allen, in this low-key wonder of a book, creates sentences that take flight.

*

ALICE FALLING

by William Wall

W.W. Norton: 200 pp., $23.95

William Wall is an Irish poet whose first novel is lyrical in the best way: It's evocative and open-ended; it creates intense atmosphere with a light touch; and it's laser-like in its dissection of human frailties. It can also be almost unbearably brutal in its portrayal of two couples who have reached the Sargasso Sea of middle age, where conflicting currents of power, pain and the past stifle all hope and threaten to take down the friends and lovers who flounder around them. Alice is the long-suffering wife of Paddy Lynch, a take-no-prisoners type who owns a software firm called, tellingly enough, Micro Solutions: "His belief was in binary codes, the esoteric world of noughts and ones where every choice is simple and every event is a switch that is either on or off." Their best friends are Mick Delany, a former champion hurler who's now an insurance man, and his wife, Nora, a former free spirit who's now drowning in anti-depressants and who might be secretly in love with Paddy. While Alice--whose not-so-buried memories of abuse at the hands of a parish priest form the book's roiling core--steals off with a Kierkegaard-obsessed undergraduate, Wall allows us to realize that Paddy is more than just a soulless jerk: He's conducting a vicious and violent affair of his own. As the betrayals mount, Alice too becomes increasingly dangerous (as only a trapped creature can be), making "Alice Falling," in the end, an exceedingly bitter pill--sleek, unsugared and determined to devastate.

*

THE SUGAR ISLAND

by Ivonne Lamazares

Houghton Mifflin: 206 pp., $23

"There was a darkness around her, a recklessness that scared me. Sometimes crossing the street as a child, I held her hand but kept my eyes on the road in case I had to pull us to the curb." That's Tanya, the 15-year-old heroine of Ivonne Lamazares' first novel, talking about her mother, an erratic, proud and pushed-to-the-edge Cuban woman, disillusioned by the path of the Revolution and pining for Yankee shores. It's the mid-'60s and the Castro era is going sour when Tanya and her little brother, Emanuel, are separated from their Mama and sent off to live with their elderly wild-haired Aunt Melena in Havana. Throughout this slim episodic novel--told in bite-size pieces that occasionally undermine its momentum--Lamazares toys with notions of motherhood and motherland, of faith and flight, of fidelity and Fidel. For Tanya, her aunt is clearly no substitute for Mama: Melena lavishes all her maternal energy upon Emanuel, leaving Tanya to grow both wistful about and resentful of her mother's mood swings, iron whims and disappearances (both voluntary and not). Lamazares shows us a Tanya beating a path through thickets of belonging and alienation, as Santeria and Catholicism, communism and democracy, chastity and sex vie for her loyalty. Even after Tanya and her Mama reunite, leaving Emanuel behind, for a perilous raft voyage to Florida, Lamazares wisely leaves many questions hanging in this ultimately ambivalent allegory about a mother and daughter who can love only from a distance.

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