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First Fiction

February 18, 2001|MARK ROZZO

POOR GEORGE

By Paula Fox

W.W. Norton: 230 pp., $13 paper

"Sleazy restaurants, bloated cars, the ravaged countryside bleeding into the new highways, the plug-ugliness of modern life gave their being together a moral character." You just don't encounter sentences like that anymore. The one in question comes from Paula Fox's 1967 debut, finally revived after years out of print. If the question "Why now?" lingers around this effort to stir up interest in Fox's career, which included the novel "Desperate Characters" and a slew of popular children's books, it quickly evaporates once we surrender to the pleasures of time-travel offered by "Poor George." The plug-ugliness of modern life is now taken for granted; in the mid-'60s, when Fox's psychically hobbled hero, schoolteacher George Mecklin, was making his daily schleps up and down the Hudson Line between New York and the burbs, it was new and everywhere. George is the missing link between us and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and his commutes echo the restless back and forth of his life: The guy never really goes forward. His heart trickles more for the abstract world at large than for his foundering marriage, the dangerous romantic preoccupations of his sister and his own emotional welfare. When a vaguely threatening urchin named Ernest starts showing up at the Mecklin house unannounced, George throws himself into an effort to interest the kid in, of all things, Joseph Conrad. George may be an educator but, in the end, it is Ernest who, not surprisingly, teaches George a thing or two in Fox's still-potent slice of Americana.

*

MY LIFE ON A PLATE

By India Knight

Houghton Mifflin: 224 pp., $21

India Knight's first novel--a low-calorie comic buffet--zeros in on a disconcertingly recognizable world that seems to come right out of the little columns and fillers that line the opening pages of women's magazines. Both Clara Hutt, Knight's mildly self-loathing narrator, and Clara's husband, Robert, grind away at London's glossies (she as a writer, he as a top editor), and Clara's universe, not surprisingly, resembles a pile of clippings touching on all the classic preoccupations. She's obsessed with pelvic-floor exercises, fad diets, Manolo Blahnik shoes, herbs grown in window boxes and even her best friend's kids, who "look like they've been picked out of a catalogue." Her own two boys--although they tend to cuss like sailors--are rather perfect in their own way, too. In fact, despite Clara's concern that she's become "more (Roseanne) Barr than Bardot, and thus guaranteed to cause detumescence at twenty paces," her life and career--compared to those of some of her hapless single friends--seems pretty together. Well, actually, her marriage is a bit of a yawn and she's continually puzzled by her husband's bathroom habits. Still, it's nothing major--or is it? Knight shows that the incessant barrage of superficiality visited upon the world by these publications creates an atmosphere of constant self-doubt, comparisons to the neighbors and outright envy. But, for Clara, these magazine-driven insecurities might just be her only path to true happiness.

*

A HEART OF STONE

By Renate Dorrestein

Translated from the Dutch

by Hester Velmans

Viking: 256 pp., $23.95

At first, Renate Dorrestein's novel about a Dutch family in the 1970s has the textured aura of a Super 8 home movie; there's a filmy glow of memory about it, of lost times and cheerful evocations of childhood. But there's a creepy undercurrent, too, as when, early on, Ellen Van Bemmel--Dorrestein's heroine, who's looking back as an adult upon her family's history--reveals a deep animus toward her soon-to-be little sister, Ida, still in the womb. This is a book all about children, we discover, and as "A Heart of Stone" starts to roll, drifting between Ellen's present-day work as a pathologist (and her suspect decision to buy back the old Van Bemmel family home) and her long-ago efforts to find her place in the teeming household of her youth, it becomes apparent that the children in question will forever remain children. This isn't because of any psychological hang-ups. It's because they're all dead, with the exception of Ellen and her brother, Carlos, the sole survivors of their mother's sudden decision--shortly after Ida's birth--to kill off the entire family, including herself and Ellen's father. This evil outburst is eventually attributed to the maddening effects of postpartum depression, and for the now-pregnant Ellen (who has ditched her husband, the "repeatedly cuckolded Thijs"), that's a scary prospect indeed. This is pretty overcooked stuff, simmered gently for about 200 pages before Dorrestein cranks the heat to a belated boil, yet it's interesting that Ellen, in a way, is already a mom: the surviving orphan who looks after a family "condemned to live on inside my head."

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