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First Fiction

September 21, 2003|Mark Rozzo

Well; Matthew McIntosh; Grove Press: 288 pp., $23

The suburban Seattle nobodies who populate Matthew McIntosh's feverish first novel smoke pot while wearing gas masks, play sex games in which one person is Russia and the other is the United States, prefer crystal meth to high school, hang out at peep shows and dive bars, and occasionally bludgeon an old woman to death or cause buses to plummet from bridges.

Their pungent accounts of contemporary living sound like they've slipped from manila folders housed in social services offices: Each chapter is another case study, or a collection of them, either loosely connected or not at all. Charlie, Harold and Julie (surnames are rare) materialize for a few pages and then fade back into the colorless anonymity from which they came. If there's a running motif, it's a strangely oblique quote from John Ruskin: "Though occasionally glaring or violent, modern color is on the whole eminently somber."

McIntosh's own palette, no surprise, is suitably glaring, violent and unrelentingly drab. The calculated effect is of a kaleidoscope of gray. It's amazing that this dour hodgepodge -- dropouts, barflies, punk rockers, dissatisfied couples and total losers -- holds the reader's attention at all, but it does, and startlingly so. There is, of course, no story line: After all, in a narrative this nihilistic, how could there be one?

If McIntosh's overarching conceit is that he's an unflinching painter of a hopeless American landscape (the grim community depicted here has the suggestive name Federal Way), he's misconceived his role. He's actually a draftsman, and the real correlative here isn't oils, it's drawing: These miniature monochromes are sketched out with impressive, if hasty, brio, as McIntosh's anonymous subjects are seen watering their lawns or relating their recurring dreams of being trapped in a well. They quickly blur, but maybe that's the point.

Toward the end, a guy named Bill asks, "Why did things always change for the worse? Did it ever get better for anyone? Besides people who win the lottery?" You get the feeling that McIntosh's cul-de-sac dwellers have already lost the lottery.


How to Breathe Underwater; Julie Orringer; Alfred A. Knopf: 228 pp., $21

In "What We Save," one of the nine bracing stories in this accomplished collection from Julie Orringer, an adolescent girl named Helena rides Space Mountain at Disney World, plunging through the artificially starlit darkness as the boy next to her, the son of her mother's old prom date, attempts to maul her. " 'Stop it,' Helena hissed. 'Your mother's right there.' " It's a moment that makes you hold your breath, as this clueless oaf gropes Helena's thighs while she desperately tries to keep herself from flipping out. Only when the nightmarish tunnel of fun opens into daylight can we again exhale.

Orringer's young heroines often find themselves in startling predicaments. Like Helena, who copes with a swooping roller coaster, uninvited violent petting and a mother who is dying of cancer, they're buffeted on all sides, forced to multitask their way into a semblance of incipient adulthood. And, like Helena, they're submerged in hostile environments or suffocating roles. In "The Isabel Fish," a girl named Isabel survives a car wreck in which the driver, her brother's girlfriend, drowns in a pond. Isabel battles her crippling fear of water with scuba lessons, so that "I'll begin to know what my fish have known all their lives: how to breathe underwater."

"Pilgrims" finds a girl and her family trapped at a hilariously New Agey Thanksgiving that turns increasingly creepy when the adults go off to meditate while the kids enact a bizarre, and potentially lethal, ritual of their own. And in "When She Is Old and I Am Famous," a talented young woman, studying art in Tuscany, is forced to play the part of a fat handmaiden to her cousin, an irritatingly perfect -- and world-famous -- fashion model. Throughout, Orringer's memorable misfits struggle with training bras, imperious siblings, bullying classmates and near constant humiliation. Their heartbreaking attempts to tread water are rendered with achy sympathy, as they learn that, sooner or later, we're all engulfed.

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