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First Fiction

November 25, 2001|MARK ROZZO

LIVING WITH SAINTS

By Mary O'Connell

Atlantic Monthly Press:

230 pp., $23

Mary O'Connell's wonderfully inventive story collection does no less than retell the lives of the saints (women saints, in particular) and, miraculously, it does so without a hint of incense or guilt. St. Agnes, for example, appears in "The Patron Saint of Girls," "hovering close to the water-stained ceiling" of a freshman biology class, which is just the kind of deflating metaphor for the heavenly firmament that O'Connell loves. Agnes, it turns out, is every bit as pithy as the author, telling the class, "[I]t's kind of you not to laugh at Sister Edith's ultrasuede pantsuit and her choppy, frizzled hair."

"Living With Saints" is an extended hagiography of the everyday, written with quiet brio and acid humor, where the sacred and secular blur gloriously into one another. Depicting contemporary women whose lives are equal parts heaven and hell (actually, mostly hell), O'Connell's stories playfully strike biblical overtones: There are mysterious, improbable pregnancies; demanding, savior-like babies; car crashes that ring like vengeful Old Testament fates; and mundane diseases that rain down like ancient curses. And just as the quotidian becomes scriptural, O'Connell brings the holy straight down to earth: In "St. Anne," the eponymous saint has a smoker's croak and recites James Dickey to a new mother who's become mixed up with a cruel dorky professor (he wears dentures and refers to condoms as "rubbers"). Smart, devout and blasphemous, "Living With Saints" reminds us that we "are entertaining the angels, unawares."

*

SOLEDAD

By Angie Cruz

Simon & Schuster: 238 pp., $23

For Soledad, the art-student heroine of Angie Cruz's confident debut novel, the distance between the East Village and 164th Street is huge--but not quite huge enough. Soledad is a young Dominican from Washington Heights who has always dreamed of escaping the hood. Now she works in a downtown gallery and lives on Avenue A, but the more she tries to escape her background, the more it gets in the way: "My family is like clutter in many ways," she says. (Soledad narrates most of this book, which is told in shifting perspectives.) "They gather in piles, hard to get rid of no matter how much I try."

In Soledad, Cruz has created a compelling heroine out of fairly ordinary stuff: the great American drive for self-invention and assimilation. Yet nobody's ever really given us such a revealing look at New York's Dominican population before, with its mix of working-class solidity and irritability from living on America's margins. While Soledad encounters trouble blending in downtown, her mother, for some reason, has come completely unglued uptown, slipping into a semi-catatonic state and requiring round-the-clock care. Her bizarre condition forces Soledad to swallow her ambition and return home, where she reencounters the festering ambivalence of family and self. Amid all of "Soledad's" identity games, Cruz, in this determinedly real yet often magical novel, offers canny insights into family life: For Soledad, the issue of the Dominican motherland is hopelessly entwined with an equally remote mother.

*

ALL THAT COUNTS

By Georg M. Oswald

Translated from the German

by Shaun Whiteside

Grove Press: 166 pp., $24

"Inactive days spent dully and alone in my apartment. My sole source of food is Dial-A-Pizza. I alternate between calzone and Hawaiian, washed down with Coke." This is thirtysomething Thomas Schulz, former bourgeois aspirant, describing his current slack circumstances. But Thomas--until recently gunning to be head of the liquidations department at a German bank--determines not to take his newfound sloth lying down. In this zippy novella by Georg M. Oswald--whose gleefully bitter prose reads like a Generation-X update of Thomas Bernhard--we watch with great satisfaction as the soulless Thomas gets canned from his job, is abandoned by his wife, courts financial peril and eventually hooks up with a local crew of hoodlums. Oswald, of course, is trying to show that there isn't much difference between the jerks who manage foreclosures and the jerks who sell illegal steroids, hang out in cheesy nightclubs and, as Thomas soon comes to realize, start wanting to use your pad to make drug deals. The genuinely funny thing about Thomas--and this contempo-noirish book--isn't that he's a bungling innocent caught up in a deadly cross-fire; it's that he's so deeply conniving that you suspect the thugs have finally found themselves the wrong patsy. After all, this is a guy who, speaking of his old corporate job, boasted: "I squeeze the last drop of blood out of people, and when no one believes there's any left, I give him a shake, and lo and behold, there's a couple more drops."

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