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First fiction

January 12, 2003|Mark Rozzo

Grass Roof, Tin Roof, Dao Strom, Mariner Books: 232 pp., $13 paper

Dao Strom's novel about a Vietnamese refugee, her children, their Danish stepfather and their life together in the Northern California sticks has an appropriately desultory air to it. The narrative is wandering, broken, episodic. Strom telescopes in on signal events -- a tense standoff with a loco neighbor over a dead dog, a rehearsal for a high school garage band, the 1975 airlift that brought Tran and her two kids to the States -- and leaves vast tracts of chronology blank. Personal trauma and trivia are given as much weight as geopolitics, as if the memory of the Vietnam War were so ever-present as to be emotional wallpaper.

Back home, Tran was an author of stories, poetry and controversial reportage, some of which was actually ghost-written by her lover, a philandering dissident named Giang. Their brief affair resulted in a daughter, Thuy, while the father of her first child, son Thien, had already died in the war. After Tran lands in California and hooks up with an architect who espouses creepy racial theories, the makeshift family settles deep in the woods outside Sacramento, where another daughter, Beth, is born.

"Grass Roof, Tin Roof" tells the story of these three kids, each of whom comes equipped with his or her own parentage, point of view and baggage. There's Thien, who hates his stepfather, moves to San Diego, develops a taste for handguns, works as a mechanic and in one mind-boggling episode, manages to steal back his own car. Thuy, now known as April, is an earnest film student intent on traveling back to Vietnam, which only makes her more confused. Meanwhile, Beth, American by birth yet born of emigres, leads the life of the vaguely irritated teenager.

After Tran dies -- the once dynamic writer having become little more than a gerbil in big America -- the connections between the survivors stretch gossamer thin, making this impressionistic novel (which feels oddly incomplete) an affecting study on the slippery nature of home. As April reflects: "Home -- whatever that is -- will be extinguished or rearranged. And what remains ... they are scattered too, like seeds."

*

Officer Friendly And Other Stories, Lewis Robinson, HarperCollins: 240 pp., $23.95

Who is Lewis Robinson and what does he want? His debut collection of stories, which has the lustrous finish and satisfying heft of classic craftsmanship, comes out of nowhere -- fully formed, totally irresistible and refreshingly retrograde. There's something downright solid and sensible about the way Robinson chronicles the lives of his Mainers. Their predicaments come perfectly assembled from the pattern books of Salinger and O'Hara and Carver, with not a dovetail out of joint, and yet they have the unfailing power to elicit surprise, recognition and wonder.

Take, for instance, "The Diver," in which the wholly sympathetic narrator -- a guy named Peter who's trying a little too hard not to look like the yachtsman that he is -- summons one of the Down East locals to help him fix his boat propeller. This simple encounter swiftly escalates into a hilariously tense agon of insecurity, mistrust and misguided machismo: Will Peter be humiliated, beaten up, hauled off to jail for attempted murder or merely cuckolded by this salty old weirdo in a wetsuit?

The mind games abound. "The Toast" tells of a young bartender who finds himself at a WASPy house party and becomes convinced that it would be impolite not to shoot the aged, pompous host. In "Puckheads," two goofballs from the high school hockey team are funneled into the drama club, in which they scuffle over an imperious drama babe and wreak gloves-off havoc upon a hapless production of "Oliver!" In "Ride," a trucker, accompanied by his reluctant son, attempts to joke his way across the Canadian border with a Freightliner of booty from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in the title story, two teen ne'er-do-wells unwittingly save the chump cop they love to humiliate.

Robinson has an eye for the complex misunderstandings that bind people -- best friends, lovers, kids and their parents. It's knotty, no-nonsense stuff, but Robinson works it into heirlooms.

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