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First Fiction

RIDES OF THE MIDWAY By Lee Durkee; W.W. Norton: 320 pp., $25.95

BONE HOUSE By Betsy Tobin; Scribner: 222 pp., $23

GREETINGS FROM THE GOLDEN STATE By Leslie Brenner; Henry Holt: 280 pp., $23

February 04, 2001|MARK ROZZO

RIDES OF THE MIDWAY By Lee Durkee; W.W. Norton: 320 pp., $25.95

"Not Skynyrd." The disbelief in Noel Weatherspoon's voice is palpable, and a weird, haunted aura--of deaths near and far--prevails in Lee Durkee's exceptional first novel, which tells of Noel's turbulent teen years in Mississippi during the late '70s and early '80s. You've got to love a coming-of-age story in which Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crash plays a pivotal role, but as masterly as this sequence is--Noel and his girlfriend wait at the landing pad for their rock heroes' bodies to be flown in via helicopter and then go grab a late-night screening of "The Exorcist" at the local drive-in--Durkee isn't a Gen-X kitsch hound. Such period touches only serve to deepen the pervading sense of remoteness and loss in Noel's experience: His attempts to connect are various and none too successful. At the drive-in, the solace of sex turns into a disaster of horrifically comic proportions; a later affair with a professor at Noel's lackluster junior college turns out to be little more than a tease for her pompous husband. Noel's connections with the dead, however, are slightly more successful, if agonizingly ephemeral: He's frequently visited by the spirit of his father, killed in Vietnam, and the memory of a boy he may or may not have accidentally killed intrudes on his every life decision--or indecision. Durkee's Noel--who, by the way, is almost always stoned out of his gourd--is a vivid personification of that classic adolescent territory between responsibility and freedom, which, in this impressive debut, can often look like a prison. *

BONE HOUSE By Betsy Tobin; Scribner: 222 pp., $23

"I suppose that I have always been prone to melancholy. Even as a child they called me fanciful, for the world of my imaginings often seemed more real to me than any other, and it was certainly preferable." The 17th-century world of Betsy Tobin's first novel is wonderfully real, all the more because it's so clearly a product of the imagination, and her nameless heroine-narrator, a young chambermaid who spends her days in a drafty manor house attending to a withered old Lady and her hunchback son, is a rather quiet, inward creature forced outside herself by extreme circumstances: Dora, the local beloved prostitute, has been found murdered, leaving an entire provincial English community in dismay. But the discovery of Dora's body--which is later pilfered from its grave and gutted--hits hardest upon our narrator and her mother, a headstrong midwife who enjoyed a close friendship with the deceased. What emerges is a surprisingly delicate murder mystery, tempered by great detail and remarkable control; when our chambermaid--now sleuth--uncovers a microscopic portrait executed in the Flemish style in Dora's hovel, it's hard not to think of Tobin's efforts in similar rarefied terms: Her strokes are sure, and it's as if they're executed with a single-bristle brush. The tiny portrait is one of many baffling clues that steer Tobin's heroine more toward a reconstruction of Dora's mysterious past than a solution to the murder; she's on the brink of adulthood, and the dark secrets she uncovers about Dora--and life in general--tend to be disturbingly instructive, as if she were looking into a mirror and seeing her face for the first time. *

GREETINGS FROM THE GOLDEN STATE By Leslie Brenner; Henry Holt: 280 pp., $23

The title of Leslie Brenner's good-natured first novel is well chosen: Each chapter is like a charming little postcard dashed off from different stops along the 30-year journey of a Van Nuys family called the Kelbows. Naturally, the mood is nostalgic, especially early on, when the book tries--a bit awkwardly--to get off the ground. Historical events--the Cuban Missile Crisis, the construction of Dodger Stadium and, of course, the Kennedy assassination--bear down on Brenner's story with all the subtlety of a Sunday night teledrama. But the headlines begin to fade into the background as the book picks up momentum: The end of Vietnam and the dreaded ascendancy of Ronald Reagan barely rate a mention because Brenner has moved on to more interesting stuff: the yearly progress of the Kelbows as they make their way from a happy, suburban, iceberg -lettuce-eating family to a divorced, smart-alecky, substance-abusing shambles where arugula is taken far too seriously and a Chiu Chow Braised Duck has the power, seemingly, to kill. The Kelbows are far too daffy to be truly tragic, and their suffering isn't quite brawny enough to lug around the weight of social commentary; Brenner's main goal is simply to remember (the oddball incidents related here seem almost too weird to be invented) and, more important, to entertain, which she does, like an old friend retelling classic stories over a fresh pot of coffee.

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