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Book Review

A Glimpse of Mysterious Venues, Unusual Experiences

THE GROTTO BERG Two Novellas By Charles Neider Cooper Square Press $22.95, 160 pages

February 02, 2001|NICK OWCHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Antarctic is a place as mysterious as the dark side of the moon. One hears reports of icebergs big as Connecticut and waves the size of 10-story office buildings that can break a ship in half. Such a place doesn't seem to require a writer of great imagination, only of clarity, for nature there provides the fantastic all on its own. The same is true of Eastern Europe: Its ancient mythologies and religion, and the Soviet Empire's wreckage, all exert a magical influence on any writer sensitive to the historical past. Charles Neider is such a writer, and the two novellas in "The Grotto Berg" offer a lyrical glimpse of life in these faraway places.

One comes away from these stories with a sense of the boggling vastness of Ukrainian steppes and the stink of Black Sea mud. There's also the mystique of arctic seas, where cracking ice sounds like an explosion of firecrackers, or a bottle of champagne is chilled with a hunk of blue ice dating from the time of Chaucer.

And yet, surprisingly, Neider misses an opportunity to really show us these bewildering regions. Instead, our eyes are frequently taken off of the surroundings and focused on a melodrama. In the novella "The Grotto Berg," a showdown between Jack Tourneau, the tyrannical captain of an arctic icebreaker, and George Barber, a nature photographer, takes center stage. Tourneau systematically humiliates Barber (we're never clear on the source of his animus), forcing him to sleep in the dark pipe-lined crew's quarters, barring him from the bridge and its view and spreading rumors that he's a spy.

But a probing study in power "The Grotto Berg" isn't. The story moves along on creaky dialogue and plot, such as when Barber confronts Tourneau and threatens him with his political clout, including "if necessary, bringing your behavior to the attention of a powerful Senator." "We know about your Senatorial connections," the captain counters. "All it proves is the power of Congress." "The power of Congress, and the structure of democracy, are good enough for me. . . ," Barber answers.

There are many such wooden exchanges, although Neider balances them with sudden bursts of lyricism about the Arctic he knows so well: "Now and then the sea was littered with ice bits that seemed to be remnants of an ice explosion. Our prow swept them effortlessly aside. . . . Fissures verging on cobalt. Water the color of blue ink, with a scattered layer of mercury. . . ." Survivor of a near-fatal 1971 helicopter crash on Mt. Erebus, Neider is also the editor of "Antarctica," a fine new anthology from Cooper Square Press of survivor stories. His personal knowledge seems to color descriptive passages, heightening their atmosphere of mystery.

Descriptions also pulse with the feel of lived experience in "The Left Eye Cries First," which follows Sid Little, a 63-year-old lawyer from Long Island, and his wife, Doris, on a visit to his birthplace near the Black Sea (Neider was born near Odessa). Invented characters, however, are mere caricatures whose actions and speech seem silly: After a villager tells Doris how a cousin was brutally murdered by an angry husband, the text reads, " 'Wow,' said Doris." Wow?

A trip to Eastern Europe, or to Antarctica for that matter, is bound to test one's endurance and lead to some sort of dramatic moment, some sort of awareness of oneself. But Neider relies instead for his drama on unexpected and rather forced catastrophes: a crumbling ice shelf in one story, a collapsing balcony in the other.

Unusual details of life in exotic locales are what once drew 19th century audiences to Robert Louis Stevenson's tales of South Pacific life. And it's still true today, which is why one hopes that Neider will write an autobiography of his undoubtedly rich, varied life. Both novellas are so saturated with what must be the fruits of real experience that it's a pity to find it here only peeking through the surface, hinting at greater depths below.

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