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October 12, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Gluttony: The Seven Deadly Sins

Francine Prose

Oxford University Press: 100 pp., $17.95

"GLUTTONY" is the last in a series of essays on the seven deadly sins by writers and scholars and men- and women-about-town, like Joseph Epstein, Wendy Wasserstein and Michael Eric Dyson. Commissioned as lectures by the New York Public Library and published by Oxford University Press, their purpose was to confront the many ways we understand and interpret evil, "one deadly sin at a time." Most read like a defense of the sin the particular writer has been assigned, and Francine Prose's is no different. She feels sorry for gluttons -- really, the way we tempt and taunt obese people! But when it comes to political greed, the correlation between wealth and greed or our greed as a nation (aside from the fact that a third of the U.S. population is obese), she borders on ferocious. What's wrong with gluttony? Well, it distracts one from God, like its twin sin, lust, and it weakens moral defenses. But how fine is the line between necessity and gluttony? Prose evokes M.F.K. Fisher to describe the sheer pleasure to be found in food. But I wonder if Prose has ever faced real temptation; her essay echoes with a slight distance from the subject. More than the sin itself, she seems to dislike the moral certitude of the judges who would condemn gluttony.

*

Lita, A Novel

Jervey Tervalon

Atria Books: 212 pp., $24

SOMETIMES it seems we have come to expect pyrotechnics in our literature -- heart-stopping beginnings over quiet complexity. Perhaps it is useful from time to time to clean the ear as one would the palate. Jervey Tervalon's style is so straightforward and unself-conscious that, were it not for the good grammar and graceful style, a reader might feel he is eavesdropping on the characters through a crack in the floorboards. The plot is almost background in these ripped-up lives. A young New Orleans woman, Lita, raises her two little sisters after her mother has died in a fire set by a no-good handsome boyfriend. Her older sister's body was found in a trunk. Her father is a woman-beater. Her aunt is insane. After the fire, Lita moves with her husband, their two boys and her two little sisters to Los Angeles. She likes everything about it except the people. "In New Orleans I knew where I stood. I was colored, even if I looked white. I belonged with the colored. In Los Angeles it isn't like that." She has a perfectly nice husband, but he bores her. So she saves money and divorces him. "I need a man in my life because I love him and want him there," is her only explanation. Lita is fierce with a broomstick, gun, cleaver -- anything it takes to defend her sisters, particularly 17-year-old Ava, who seemingly overnight appears to have developed enormous breasts. Lita has to fight off the men in the frontyard. She bears the burden of family with a leonine ferocity. You'd know her if you met her. And that is one of the highest compliments a reader can give a writer.

*

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art

Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco: 240 pp., $21.95

"AN affinity for risk, danger, mystery, a certain derangement of the soul; a craving for distress ... the predilection for insomnia" -- these are some of the ingredients in the personalities of writers. Such are the people who create what Joyce Carol Oates calls "the highest expression of the human spirit," art. Oates writes that it requires solitude to create a counterworld, seeming to agree with Virginia Woolf, whom she quotes: "A book should be unwriteable." In other words, one can't lay it all out ahead. Like Marguerite Duras, Oates says that the writer is damned. While Duras used alcohol to rest, Oates admits an addiction to running. But Oates gives us something larger, something worthy of faith. She reminds us of the irrelevance of the writer's ego: "The 'artist' can inhabit any individual," she writes, "for the individual is irrelevant to 'art.' "

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