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First Fiction

March 04, 2001|MARK ROZZO

LICK CREEK

By Brad Kessler

Scribner: 300 pp., $24

"She found her hollow once on a map of West Virginia. Lick Creek was the thinnest scribble of blue, a crack in a porcelain cup." At the start of Brad Kessler's thrilling debut, "Lick Creek"--a claustrophobic mining community of the 1920s--seems more like the cup than the crack. It is here that a self-contained world seems to rise up around a young woman named Emily Jenkins: While she experiences her first stirrings of lust and love for a kind Italian boy named Gianni, the nearby mines suggest a vast prehistoric nether world under Emily's feet. But a mine explosion soon claims the lives of her brother, father and Gianni, and electrical towers rise up on the surrounding hills, bringing strangers into the tight community. First there's Robert Daniels, a rakish electric company dandy who forces himself upon Emily in a fancy hotel room, and then there's Joseph Gershon, an electric company underling who is literally delivered to the doorstep of the Jenkins' home. Joseph is a Russian Jew, and after a fall from one of the electrical towers, he's nursed to health by Emily's mother and uses the occasion to spin out his former life in Russia and Brooklyn while Emily begrudgingly falls for him, this unlikely, exotic creature seemingly from another planet. Kessler sets up this culture-clash romance--and its cataclysmic consequences--expertly, making "Lick Creek" the kind of guilt-free melodrama that Hollywood can only dream about. In the end, Emily and Joseph slip away, sharing a wild fugitive freedom that, like this odd, exquisite and affecting book, ends all too abruptly.

*

HENS DANCING

By Raffaella Barker

Random House: 278 pp., $24.95

Raffaella Barker writes for the English magazine Country Life, and her first novel published in America is, no surprise, all about English country life. Specifically, it's about a year in the English country life of Venetia Summers, the somewhat rudderless mum of Giles and Felix, two boys racing out of toddlerhood at frightening speed, and a baby girl known as The Beauty. But this is no pastoral idyll of rosy-cheeked kids and cuddly pet rabbits; despite the Martha Stewart setting, Venetia's life--told here in daily chapters torn from her diary--is precarious at best. She's recently divorced from her husband, the philandering Charles, with whom she started up a dead-pet business called Heavenly Petting. This is appropriate because Venetia and Charles' marriage is buried here with as much fanfare as you'd see at a budgie's funeral. As the ever-frazzled Venetia spends her days running the boys to school, fretting over her middle-aged pallor, having wistful thoughts about the bloke who's fixing her bathroom and generally mucking about in Wellingtons, we never get the sense of any kind of forward movement. It's as if these clipped diary entries ("Wish profoundly that Giles and Felix were with us" or "Must have nodded off. . . .") allow Barker to forgo the niceties of narrative altogether. What we're left with is a loose accumulation of episodes that, at their best, have the cozy charm of teatime Radio Four dispatches, but which, in the end, make "Hens Dancing" just another flightless bird.

*

VISIBLE AMAZEMENT

By Gale Zoe Garnett

Scribner: 286 pp., $23

Roanne Chappell is a talented young cartoonist with a knockout bod and a fascination with words; her work involves disarmingly goofy wordplay, and her improbable adventures have the same kind of charge--of discovery, of the world coming into delightful focus--as the best word games: She hits the road, splitting from her inspiring but overbearing artist mom; she shacks ups with her hero, the French dwarf cartoonist D.D.A., at his forest retreat near Eureka; she moves on for a stint with the family of an ex-cowboy actor Jesus freak in Tarzana; and finally jumps a cab to Malibu, where she stumbles into a rarefied yet welcoming crowd of photographers, groupies, boozers and rock stars. But the main thing about Roanne that you should know is that she's 14. Gale Zoe Garnett has created an alarmingly fun and honest book about the kind of adolescence that kids fantasize about but which inspires parents to vote Republican; a case is made that, for certain young people, going on reckless shopping sprees with rich friends and having unprotected sex with a variety of intellectually engaging partners might actually be more educational than traditional schooling. But it's difficult to make this point without ambivalence, and Garnett is nothing if not ambivalent toward mother-daughter power struggles, underage sex and independence, even the whole concept of innocence and experience. The more Roanne discovers herself, the more she's in over her head, making "Visible Amazement" a heartfelt tale of a square peg who just happens to find her place too soon.

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