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First Fiction

October 13, 2002|Mark Rozzo

The Ice Beneath You, by Christian Bauman, Scribner: 234 pp., $13, paper

"Freddie Mercury was a genius, and he rocked." It's not what you'd expect to hear a sergeant barking in boot camp, but Christian Bauman's impressive "The Ice Beneath You" isn't exactly standard-issue stuff. Equal parts "Stripes" and "Apocalypse Now," it centers on Somalia in 1993, during a war that was ignored by CNN until the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu, which makes a cameo here. At that point, however, Pvt. Benjamin Jones is back in America, looking on helplessly, wondering about the fate of his comrades, and quite unable to get his act together.

Told in alternating episodes that trace Jones' hitch in Africa and his equally challenging post-Army life as a wayward Greyhound passenger, San Francisco peep-show performer and eventual dishwasher, "The Ice Beneath You" depicts a hard-as-nails character who's as fragile as peace itself. Like his contradictory Gen-X hero, Bauman served in Somalia, and there's an immediacy here that evokes the great soldier-writers Tim O'Brien and Thom Jones; but while those titans tell of Vietnam's endless aftermath, Bauman gives us a hidden war story closer to our own time.

*

The White, by Deborah Larsen, Alfred A. Knopf: 224 pp., $22

In 1758, 16-year-old Mary Jemison was abducted from her Pennsylvania farm by marauding Indians. Mary's true story was first set down in 1823 by a certain Dr. Seaver, and it is this curious record of an eightysomething white woman looking back on an improbable life spent among the Shawnee, Seneca and Delaware tribes that has inspired poet Deborah Larsen's remarkable novel.

After her parents are summarily scalped, Mary is brought to Ft. Duquesne (modern-day Pittsburgh) and handed over to two Seneca sisters mourning the loss of their brother. Re-christened Two-Falling-Voices, Mary is meant to be cosmic compensation for the Seneca brother, and, to her surprise, she somehow manages to become a true sibling to her often-quarrelsome captors. What ensues is both a stirring adventure tale, as Mary negotiates her way from the Ohio Valley to Upstate New York amid the Indians, French and English, and a lyrical meditation on one woman's coming of age.

Larsen's perfect prose captures both the brutality and unexpected beauty of Mary's life, and we're left with the extraordinarily disquieting feeling that, aside from moss diapers and the occasional canoe voyage, Mary's life may have turned out much the same had she never been kidnapped at tomahawk point. For all its frontier romance, "The White" is a stubbornly unvarnished tale, in which the Indians are, thankfully, as full of humanizing flaws as the white settlers who would wipe them out.

*

Carrying the Body, by Dawn Raffel, Scribner: 126 pp., $18

An enigmatic single mom named Elise returns to her vaguely dysfunctional childhood home with baby in tow. The baby is suffering from a mysterious affliction, and Elise's possibly alcoholic sister -- identified only as "aunt" -- develops an unexplained obsession with the child. Meanwhile, Elise's father emerges every once in a while to mutter an incomplete thought before sinking back into the murk that enshrouds Dawn Raffel's "Carrying the Body" like an impenetrable fog.

Is it the writer's responsibility to offer the reader a clue of what's going on? Apparently not, especially when there are more pressing stylistic raptures to indulge in: It's not sufficient that Elise's rash-inflicted baby be referred to by a simple Christian name; instead, he's "James, Jim, Baby, blistering offspring, bottled at last, asleep at last, at last in Mother's arms and presumed to be dreaming: Such rich milk! Oh, wheel of my sleep!" As "Carrying the Body" surges along, enthralled by itself and populated by narrators who are unable to express themselves in complete grammatical units, you gradually come to realize -- if you squint hard enough -- that Elise is gearing up to run away. Good plan.

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