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THE MINERAL PALACE By Heidi Julavits; Putnam: 400 pp.,
$23.95 : BODY OF A GIRL By Leah Stewart; Viking: 312
pp., $23.95 : L. I. E. By David Hollander; Villard:
230 pp., $22.95

First Fiction

September 03, 2000|MARK ROZZO

THE MINERAL PALACE By Heidi Julavits; Putnam: 400 pp., $23.95

Heidi Julavits' first novel is set in the Dust Bowl, and its perfectly distilled Depression-era mood recalls such iconic, clear-eyed American visions as the photographs of Walker Evans and Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde." The famous criminal duo even make a cameo here, briefly crossing paths with young Bena Jonssen, her husband, Ted, and their baby, Little Ted, as they drive from the staid comfort of Minnesota to Pueblo, Colo., where Ted, like a middle-class Tom Joad, has been forced by circumstance to continue his medical practice. If the romantic image of Bonnie and Clyde haunts Bena like an unattainable ideal, she's even more plagued by other elemental encounters: The dust of Pueblo adheres to everything, turning fresh laundry gray on the line and, on one occasion, threatening the family's lives. In this ongoing battle with dust, we find a mirror of Bena's efforts to purge the tiny abrasive secrets that abound in her life: her suspicions that her husband is a philanderer, that her unresponsive baby may be seriously unwell, that her beloved late brother was a criminal and that she's falling for a cowboy who turns out to be a lapsed member of the local gentry. Bena's obsession with secrets--expressed by her fascination with the Mineral Palace, a crumbling edifice on Pueblo's outskirts--makes her an ideal cub reporter for the Chieftain, which becomes an opportunity for digging up some scandalous stuff about her adopted town--and about herself. In Bena, Julavits has created a period-piece heroine with timeless obsessions and a troubling town full of "cowards in the guise of impossible creatures."

BODY OF A GIRL By Leah Stewart; Viking: 312 pp., $23.95

"In Memphis, the end of summer begins with Death Week"; that week, of course, marks the anniversary of Elvis Presley's passing in August 1977 and features hordes of the faithful wailing before Graceland's graffiti-covered walls. But Olivia Dale, the twentysomething reporter who narrates this hip thriller, finds that a somewhat less ostentatious death grabs her attention over the course of a steamy Memphis summer. The mangled body of a woman roughly Olivia's own age has been found in Tom Lee Park, and Olivia's encounter with this body--identified as Allison Avery, a charismatic beauty looking to launch a music career--forces her to deal with some of the colder facts of her own existence: She's a timid creature whose relationship with David, a music-biz guy who spends more time in smoky clubs than with her, is going nowhere, and, for all her talk of journalistic integrity, she often feels like a con woman preying on the trust of victims' families. While Olivia assesses these unflattering truths, the truth about Allison becomes increasingly elusive. Was she a nice girl or a wild woman? And then there's the larger question that hovers over Olivia's consuming investigation: Is it ever possible to make sense of a senseless crime? As Olivia plunges deeper into Allison's world, Leah Stewart--in a book that, like the life of Elvis, grows increasingly bizarre and fascinating--teases us with the notion that Olivia is just giving herself a dangerous self-guided tour of her own unexamined desires.

L. I. E. By David Hollander; Villard: 230 pp., $22.95

The L.I.E. is the notorious Long Island Expressway, which cuts through the ultra-suburban milieu of David Hollander's engaging debut about a likable kid growing up stultified in the late '80s. The L.I.E. even cuts through the middle of the book itself, in a chapter that traces the exit-by-exit commute of 19-year-old Harlan Kessler as he heads east, back to his disjointed family's Suffolk County home from a visit to his girlfriend in tony Westchester. Like much of "L.I.E.," Harlan's drive is equal parts bleak travelogue and surreal daydream, touching on virtually every classic aspect of the burbs: the all-important garage (repository of childhood board games and the childish dreams of bored guitarists), the cruelly scripted family dinner, the drearily predictable extramarital affair and, most of all, the doings of the local wayward youth. Most of Harlan's modest ambition is directed toward ridding himself of the albatross of virginity, which, once accomplished, leaves him to fret about his narrow options and his self-limiting allegiance to what he calls his "birthright"--the crushingly real imperative to remain loyal to the ersatz atmosphere of suburbia. What, after all, is more real than the phoniness of the 'burbs? If we feel we've heard enough about the land at malls and cloverleafs, we're wrong; it's probably the most authentically American experience there is, a point that Hollander makes in a blur of concrete, exit signs and self-deprecating hilarity. If "L.I.E." strives occasionally beyond its capacities, who can blame it?

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