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First Fiction

April 01, 2001|MARK ROZZODECK

COLUMBUS SLAUGHTERS BRAVES

By Mark Friedman

Houghton Mifflin: 202 pp., $23

This taut novella from Mark Friedman explores the psychological consequences of being one notch ahead in the birth order from a scarily talented, perennially blessed, and eventually iconic bazillionaire baseball star. It's narrated by Joe Columbus, who grows up in Southern Californian comfort, playing little league alongside his kid brother, CJ. Everything is going great for Joe until it becomes evident that CJ-otherwise a dim bulb-has big-time major-league goods. As Mr. and Mrs. Columbus divert Joe from baseball to tennis in an attempt to spare his feelings, we get a sense of a life destined to be lived in the cruel second-hand glow of CJ's fame. This is the kind of book you read with your nails digging into the sofa, as Joe relates how he's relegated to bystander status: Joe's mother "wasn't able to speak of CJ's accomplishments to me without it sounding as if she was gloating." Fair enough. Alas, Joe, who gets into Georgetown, marries a beautiful and smart woman, and follows the honorable path of becoming a teacher, finds that he can't be similarly proud of himself. He gets no parental satisfaction, is confronted daily by his famous brother-now a superstar Chicago Cub-in the sports pages and becomes distrustful of his wife: "our marriage was like a restaurant running out of specials."

This is an unsparing ode to brotherly hate, a manipulative little book that's also flawless in its portrayal of a decent guy's daily struggle against feeling like a total scrub.

*

AFTER YOU'D GONE

By Maggie O'Farrell

Viking: 372 pp., $24.95

Alice Raikes, the formidable twentysomething heroine of Maggie O'Farrell's first novel, lies in a coma in a London hospital, and although this book wisely avoids trying to conjure the slippery, conjectural aspects of what it's like to be comatose, it does echo Alice's condition in some compelling ways: As if projected onto a scrim of deep slumber, the story of Alice's childhood in a Scottish village, of her fraught relationship with her cold English mother, of her collegiate sexual fumblings and of her adult life in London where she works in a nonprofit and falls for a nice Jewish reporter named John, is spun out in flashbacks that unfold with their own strange logic. The restless shifts in perspective may take some getting used to, but once you adjust, you discover a surprising momentum that seems to be building toward a revealing climax-a kind of awakening, one hopes. But it's not clear whether Alice-who, distraught after John's sudden death, has stepped into oncoming traffic-will actually awaken. O'Farrell lets us dangle on the question of whether Alice has actually tried to do herself in; likewise, the unconscious Alice is ambivalent about the very categories of life and death: "I can't say which I want. Death seems difficult and elusive to me." O'Farrell has written a deeply elusive book, one made more mysterious, somehow, by her wonderful sense of detail: Tiny movements of mood, of unspoken affections and animosities, of thwarted expectations and cruelly dashed hopes all register like electrified blips on an EKG, as if the tragic incidents related here were, strangely, the vital signs of life itself.

*

THE GARDENS OF KYOTO

By Kate Walbert

Scribner: 288 pp., $24

The gardens of Kyoto were spared by Allied bombers during World War II, ostensibly due to their cultural and religious significance. In Kate Walbert's affecting debut novel, a kid named Randall-as mysterious and complex as those legendary Zen gardens-wasn't so lucky; he was killed on Iwo Jima, and his story is told here by his adoring cousin, Ellen, who may well have been in love with him. Ellen's narration is powered by a subdued kind of grief, a lifelong loss that has mellowed with age as she looks back across the decades to recapture the rickety Maryland farmhouse where the boy Randall feasted on such esoteric volumes as his prized leather-bound "The Gardens of Kyoto." But Ellen's grief and remembrance extend beyond Randall, drawing in Randall's father (a respected judge), her late sister Rita, her vanished college friend Daphne, and, eventually, a mysterious Korean War vet who would father her even more mysterious child, to whom, we discover, Ellen is relating this increasingly multifaceted tale. This is a quiet saga, where unwanted pregnancies abound, unions are compromised and life is best expressed by its many near-misses-the kind of shadowy stuff that typifies Japanese gardens. At times, it feels as if "The Gardens of Kyoto" could stand a dose of Zen minimalism, but there's something convincingly elegant in Walbert's prose, making this book a strange and stately object of contemplation.

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