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MARTYR'S CROSSING By Amy Wilentz; Simon & Schuster: 312 pp., $24

THE FLANEUR A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris By Edmund White; Bloomsbury: 212 pp., $16.95

CHANCES OF A LIFETIME By Warren Christopher; Scribner: 320 pp., $26

March 11, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

MARTYR'S CROSSING By Amy Wilentz; Simon & Schuster: 312 pp., $24

The first scene of this novel is so precise, so startling, so unforgettable, that it well serves its riddle-like role in the rest of the novel: How could such a thing have happened? This is the question all Wilentz's characters and her readers must ask themselves. On the cold rainy night of several terrorist attacks, a young Palestinian woman tries to carry her 2 1/2-year-old son, who is having an asthma attack, past a checkpoint into Jerusalem to see the doctor. She is stopped at the checkpoint by a young lieutenant who is ordered, against his own judgment, not to let her pass. An ambulance arrives to take an Israeli soldier with a scratch on his face to the hospital, but the authorities will not let the child go. The boy dies. It must be said again--the boy dies. No sooner is he dead than he becomes a martyr and the focus of rioting, graffiti and a public campaign to "find the soldier" who would not let them pass. The boy's grandfather, a cardiologist, comes from America to help his daughter find a path through the political harangues that cloud her grieving. These characters are all pawns of history and politics, but Wilentz makes them live, insisting on the potential of humans to be good at every critical juncture. This is how fiction sheds light on history. It is not necessarily balanced, but it makes, in the end, history, writ large, seem tragically superficial.

THE FLANEUR A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris By Edmund White; Bloomsbury: 212 pp., $16.95

It's a lovely word, fla^neur, meaning "loiterer" but so much more. Loitering has a slightly unpleasant, voyeur connotation in our day and age, of someone on the margins of society who doesn't have anything better to do than to make civilized people nervous while he watches them go about their business. In quieter times it meant someone who likes a leisurely stroll, is an adept noticer, a person of culture and a talker. Edmund White fulfills all requirements of this attenuated definition (and the current connotation as well; he has been known to make civilized people nervous). The fla^neur has a literary tradition: Balzac, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin are credited here, but there are many others closer to home as well: Adam Gopnik ("Paris to the Moon") and A.J. Liebling ("Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris"), to name just two favorites. White, who has lived in Paris since 1983, knows its history, its underbelly and its glittering beau monde. He admires its sophisticated (perhaps smothering) embrace (at times when other parts of the world were not so welcoming) of African Americans, Jews and gays. He recalls the Dreyfus case and the trial of Jean Genet, whom Cocteau argued out of imprisonment for theft in court on the strength of Genet's genius ("You cannot convict Rimbaud!"). White reveals these corners of Paris. He is proud to say that the city "accommodates all tastes." Being a city of fads, it is also a place where you can go to a restaurant that serves only cheese or only caviar. You can go ballroom dancing on a Tuesday afternoon. "A reckless friend," he writes, "defines a big city as a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night." Paris may be weak in the skyscraper department. Though in some circles the city is considered "a cultural backwater," White loves its stony melancholia, which is a little like loving a friend even though he is chronically depressed. "Why is the fla^neur so lonely? So sad? Why is there such an elegiac feeling hanging over this city. . . ? Why is he unhappy . . . even when he strolls past the barnacled towers of Notre Dame soaring above the Seine and a steep wall so dense with ivy it looks like the side of a galleon sinking under moss-laden chains?"

CHANCES OF A LIFETIME By Warren Christopher; Scribner: 320 pp., $26

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