YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

First Fiction

August 10, 2003|Mark Rozzo

The Truth

About Celia

Kevin Brockmeier

Pantheon: 240 pp., $22

"What can you do when there's nothing to go on, when a person just vanishes, lifted like a spirit from her own backyard?" This is the predicament faced by Christopher Brooks, the fictional author of "The Gates of Horn and Ivory Trilogy." The vanished person is his one and only child, Celia, who disappears one March afternoon in 1997: One minute she's balancing precariously on the stone wall behind the Brooks' landmarked farmhouse, and the next she's gone, never to return and never to be found.

Kevin Brockmeier, Brooks' real-life alter ego, faces a similar narrative conundrum in this ambitious first novel. Brockmeier has previously written a story collection and a children's book, and "The Truth About Celia" -- also the name of the book-within-a-book by Brooks -- dovetails his earlier efforts. This is a novel in stories, and its subject isn't so much innocent faces on milk cartons as it is childhood itself and its relationship -- both tenacious and tenuous -- to adult reality.

Having literally nothing to go on (after all, how do you write about something that none of your characters have witnessed or can truly fathom?), Brockmeier spins out a series of fantastical extended interludes. Sometimes they interlock and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they zero in on the missing Celia (her accounts of being 7 years old) and sometimes they veer off into meditations on suburbia (Brooks or his wife, Janet, coping with their loss amid neighbors, strip malls and ever-present elm trees).

Each chapter has a different point of view, a different voice, and may take place in the past, present or future. (In "The Green Children," Celia mysteriously alights in a quasi-medieval parallel universe.) All the while, perspectives shift from paragraph to paragraph, like the flittering nature of memory. At one point, Brooks finds himself absorbed in the habits of a squirrel: "If you are small enough and nimble enough, the trees are like a system of roads, and before half a minute has passed, the squirrel has leaped from one tree on another, and from that tree onto a third." You get the sense of Brockmeier as that nimble-footed squirrel, ably darting from limb to limb as he tells this daring story, which has so much to say about storytelling and is yet somehow not quite a story at all.


River Season

Jim Black

Viking: 192 pp., $23.95

Jim Black's "River Season" brings us back to Archer City, the North Texas town that Larry McMurtry transformed into the setting for "The Last Picture Show." Black grew up there, and this bittersweet novella recalls McMurtry's piquant coming-of-age tale. Although it's 1966, a decade after best friends Sonny and Duane had their fistfight over the fickle affections of Jacy Farrow, you keep expecting them to show up.

But Black has his own story to tell. Whereas McMurtry depicted the tweaked lusts and illusions of high school seniors, Black gives us a tale worthy of serialization in Boys' Life. There's an unapologetic Young Adult quality to "River Season," underscored by its frankly nostalgic cover and its tone of imperturbable calm as it portrays that time-honored cusp of personhood, the age of 13. Black's Sonny is a kid named (like the author) Jim Black, who, along with his two best friends, Gary and Charles, gets up to all the usual 13-year-old stuff: playing Little League, talking about girls, convincing himself that he's seen Bigfoot and setting off the occasional aspirin-bottle bomb (pour gunpowder into bottle, light fuse, run).

Nothing really explosive happens here, though, except for the potentially dangerous friendship that Jim develops with Sam, an elderly black man who regales Jim with tall tales of his exploits in the Negro Leagues as they fish together on the river. Jim's father died years ago and Sam becomes for Jim what Sam the Lion became for Sonny -- a strong yet ultimately enigmatic father figure.

As "River Season" plays out over a slow summer, Jim's affections -- for his pals, for Sam and for an unobtainable girl -- seem incapable of cohesion. "My heart was scattered in the River Big. I wondered if somehow one day I could make it all fit together." For his part, Black makes this heartfelt story hang together, giving us a fresh vision of a classic small town.

Los Angeles Times Articles