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First Fiction

JUNIPER TREE BURNING by Goldberry Long; Simon & Schuster: 464 pp., $25

JUNO & JULIET by Julian Gough; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 244 pp., $23.95

LIT LIFE by Kurt Wenzel; Random House: 320 pp., $24.95

July 29, 2001|MARK ROZZO

JUNIPER TREE BURNING by Goldberry Long; Simon & Schuster: 464 pp., $25

Toward the end of Goldberry Long's passionate, sprawling debut, her narrator--a caustic, identity-torn young woman named Juniper Tree Burning--makes a surprising claim: "There's so much I left out. So much I treated like backyard gossip." We'll have to take Juniper's word for it because, despite her tendency to circle back to stories already twice told, she's quite a storyteller. In fact, if there's a quibble to make about Juniper's story--set mostly in New Mexico, where she's given her burdensome name by hippie parents--it's that nothing appears to be left out. There might be holes in the reasons why Juniper (who in adulthood calls herself Jennie) is who she is, but as she races from New Mexico to Seattle in a beat-up Ford pickup in the wake of her brother's suicide, we're continually blown off course by chapters relating Juniper's crummy childhood: her father's emasculation by a crumbling adobe house, her mother's obsession with Juniper's little brother and, later, her stepfather's herding of the family into a creepy New Age cult. What really works here is watching Juniper/Jennie in the moment, reacting swiftly, and often unfairly, to a passionate marriage gone quickly stale, the unaccustomed sensation of finding a best friend and the unanticipated death of her wayward brother, Sunny Boy Blue. "Juniper Tree Burning" is a vexing work--full of astonishments but held back by its awkward narrative and a determination to dazzle.

JUNO & JULIET by Julian Gough; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 244 pp., $23.95

You wouldn't expect a guy who fronted a band called Toasted Heretic to be capable of the kind of grace and warmth that exudes from "Juno & Juliet." And yet Julian Gough has created an unfashionably amiable tale of twin 18-year-old Irish sisters who have absolutely no recovered memories, no addictions, no drives to write novels and no ambitions to kill other people. As Juliet, Gough's narrator, says, "[M]y vice is the Victorian vice of sentimentality, not the modern vice of irony. If I slip, it will be in the direction of old-fashioned sentiment." Juliet does slip, and beautifully so, as she relates the story of her and her sister Juno's eventful first year at a Galway university. "Juno & Juliet" isn't Arcadian in the manner of "Brideshead Revisited." In fact, it's the most brutally--and hilariously--real depiction of Irish undergraduate and academic life since "The Gingerbread Man," as the twins navigate through tutorials and drama societies filled with wonderful creatures just bordering on caricature: the handsome Modern English lecturer struggling to maintain decorum with the smitten Juliet; the alcoholic visiting writer who becomes increasingly scary; the overemotional boy who manages to win Juno, only to have his affections returned with ambivalence; and the gloriously pretentious thespian who heroically manages to do "the dirty on Beckett." Despite Gough's scathing observations on critical theory, the horrible death of one of his villains and a bad acid trip, sweetness is stubbornly maintained here, and (with one exception) everyone--for once--lives happily ever after.

LIT LIFE by Kurt Wenzel; Random House: 320 pp., $24.95

The pun of the title of Kurt Wenzel's adroit comic novel refers to the experiences of a martini-swigging novelist who, at a mere 33, has been a has-been for years. Like the stunning array of alcohol that Kyle Clayton--Wenzel's pretty-boy anti-hero--packs away, "Lit Life" is almost irresponsibly, intoxicating. As it shuttles between Manhattan and the Hamptons, it encounters surprisingly little in the way of traffic pileups or pretensions. Instead, this biting sendup of New York's literary scene cruises along, establishing the kind of perfect momentum those eastbound weekenders on the Long Island Expressway can only dream about. Kyle's career is severely on the ropes; he even lands himself on New York magazine's "Most Hated" list. Think Jay McInerney, think Bret Easton Ellis: "'Charmed Life' and its writer had become a symbol for something insipid, the names synonymous with eighties excess and brash youth." Instead of resigning himself to embarrassing situations at PEN parties, however, Kyle manages to befriend a legend: Richard Whitehurst, the reclusive author of such acclaimed yet ignored novels as "Sag Harbor Sonata." Whitehurst is Wenzel's William Gaddis, and "Lit Life's" intrigue and fun comes from watching this unlikely love fest between Kyle, the opportunistic, despised celebrity, and Whitehurst, the aging, self-obsessed cult hero. It's a diabolical engine that Wenzel uses to propel this invective-laced tall tale toward an explosive ending involving riotous drinking, cruel recriminations, adultery, crack smoking and--most improbably--real tragedy.

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