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First Fiction

August 24, 2003|Mark Rozzo

Calpurnia

Anne Scott

Alfred A. Knopf: 296 pp., $24

Ah, the Main Line. The storied redoubt of Philadelphia's fashion-resistant Old Money, the glorified suburb that prides itself on not being New York or Hollywood, where good hedges always make the best (preferably WASP) neighbors. It's here, amid the boxwoods and wisteria, that Maribel Archibald Davies, aged bohemian blueblood and aloof matriarch, has passed away under semi-mysterious circumstances in the family's belle epoque mansion, Calpurnia. In comes Elizabeth Oliver, stepping deeper into middle age and a potential hornet's nest of conflicting desires and story lines when she's tapped to manage the sale of Maribel's worldly goods. As an estate liquidator, Elizabeth is all about price and provenance, but she's no shark circling the wreck. Divorced, barely making ends meet, embroiled (if you can call it that) in a long-distance affair with a married man, Elizabeth is a sponge for all the romance and intrigue that wafts up from Calpurnia.

Maribel, it turns out, was a painter and a pretty good one. She may also have taken her life, assisted by her layabout son, Coby, an erstwhile aspiring tennis champ who now does little but take drugs and watch Wimbledon on the tube. Maribel also amassed some beautiful Bencharong bowls, Biedermeier furniture and even a couple of erotic Carracci prints, in which the sporting figures have their pertinent parts painted over with ribbons.

In Anne Scott's able hands, Elizabeth's job becomes a calling as she attempts to peek under those ribbons to determine the prints' authenticity and to get at the mystery that is Maribel and her family. It turns out that Maribel's collection of people was just as impressive as her collection of stuff: her busybody niece, Nina English; her nosy neighbor, Peg; her all-too-sensible brother, Conrad; her painting mentor, Lipscomb, who executed the outsize portrait of her above the mantelpiece; and her conniving former dealer, Friedrichson. No wonder Maribel painted only empty rooms, haunting interiors devoid of what chiefly defined her: people and things.

As Maribel's story emerges, so does Elizabeth's. She, too, has wandered into a life of clutter that only listening to "Tosca" on the car stereo can hold at bay. Still, there's a real sense of loss here as Calpurnia's furnishings are tagged and carted off by the rapacious dealers and philistine bargain hunters, and its rooms go, like Maribel's forlorn paintings, blank. In examining how the other half dies, Scott has created an impossibly rich portrait of, literally, the stuff of life.

*

Approximately Heaven

James Whorton Jr.

The Free Press: 240 pp., $23

Don Wendell Brush is one of those well-meaning, wayward dudes who bumble from unfortunate decision to unfortunate decision, earning our undying affection and pity as they go. Brush, known to his friends as Wendell and to his long-suffering wife as Don, is the hero of James Whorton Jr.'s first novel, a Southern-fried picaresque that evokes the swampy entertainments of Harry Crews and, occasionally, as when Brush twists the cap off yet another ice-cold beer or makes another off-kilter observation, of Denis Johnson.

But Brush isn't really as out there as one of Crews' or Johnson's marginals. He's an electrician. At least when he works. And he's married. Well, until his wife threatens to leave him, prompting Brush to execute a brilliantly cracked stratagem of preemption: He takes off first, knowing his beloved Mary would never abandon the dog and cat. What ensues is a mildly bizarre joyride, as Brush rides from Tennessee down to the Mississippi coast -- the famed Redneck Riviera -- with a clearly unstable older gentleman named Dove Ellender. Riding shotgun as Dove's Sancho Panza, Brush reflects on his sorry lot while Dove gets up to various shady doings: unloading stolen goods, getting mixed up with a NASCAR bookie and violently intervening in his daughter's broken-down life.

In the end, "Approximately Heaven" is approximately a lot of things: Like any road trip, there's a sense here of taking in a surface that flies by too quick. But however slight, Whorton's novel delivers a mischievous and heartfelt message: If you keep taking enough wrong turns, you might just end up where you've always belonged.

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