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A father-finding mission to L.A.

No Direction Home A Novel Marisa Silver W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $23.95

June 26, 2005|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire."

Marisa silver, who drew buzz when a story from her first collection, "Babe in Paradise," appeared in the New Yorker, has settled into a solid and serious groove with her first novel, "No Direction Home." Her work has echoes of John Fante's raw sagas of the travails of newly emigrated working-class Italians and Mexicans in the Depression era. "I had a lot of jobs in Los Angeles Harbor because our family was poor and my father was dead," Fante writes in "The Road to Los Angeles," the first of his series of novels (including the 1939 classic "Ask the Dust") about a budding writer named Arturo Bandini.

Fast forward 70 years. In "No Direction Home," Silver has created a 21st century version of the newcomer's journey to Los Angeles through the stories of three youngsters converging on the city in search of their missing fathers.

Rogelio, 14, leaves his Mexican village in the back of a truck, reaches the border four days later, wades across a muddy river, crosses a desert, escapes from the police, sniffs glue in underground barrio tunnels with a gang of feral boys and lives with gnawing hunger until he steals enough to make it to Los Angeles to find his father. On the verge of starvation, he curses his father for going to America, his mother for allowing his father to leave, and himself for failing: "If his body was a dog, he would kick it. Delivering pain would make him feel less pain."

Will, 10, who is losing his vision to a progressive eye disease, moves with his mother and twin brother from their Missouri home to Los Angeles to live with her parents. When Will's grandmother, who is suffering from dementia, asks why he is there, he explains, "My father went away.... So we came here to live with you. Because of money and stuff."

Sixteen-year-old Marlene runs away from her single mom, taking a bus from Indianapolis to Los Angeles in search of the father she has never known. She dreams of becoming part of his "other" family. Here is Marlene's take on her mother, who works at a bail bonds office and drinks too much: "Her mother always manages to insinuate that Marlene's existence is just a rerun of Diane's, as if her future is already being lived for her in the form of this woman, lying back in her frayed chair, legs stretched out, toes turned in, carelessly awkward, pointlessly lovely."

Poverty. Desperation. Abandonment. A yearning for love and hope and work. Many passions drive these young travelers. Eventually, with a few plot tricks, all three cross paths in the small North Hollywood home of Will's grandparents, Vincent and Eleanor Rafallo.

Silver is masterful at orchestrating her complicated cast of characters and settings. She ranges with ease from the tiny Mexican village of El Rosario, best known for its butterfly sanctuary, to the woods and yard sales in a Missouri college town, to the concrete causeways and hidden cul-de-sacs of everyday Los Angeles. But perhaps the most impressive quality of this novel is her ability to create distinct and idiosyncratic characters struggling with physical, psychological and economic limits.

After a day of caring for Eleanor Rafallo, Rogelio's father, Amador, finds it amusing "that Los Angeles public transportation exists to serve people who aren't even supposed to be in the country." Even as Amador shows tenderness toward Eleanor, he realizes the irony: "He is providing for his family the only way he can, by taking care of someone else's." Back home in El Rosario, his 34-year-old wife, Erlinda, senses the effect of Amador's choice to go north: "Dead. Gone. Absence and nonexistence manifest themselves identically in her children's lives."

Will struggles to understand why his father, an astronomer whose depression inhibits his ability to see beyond his own pain, has disappeared. Meanwhile his grandfather Vincent, a failed actor, tries to explain to his mother, Caroline, why he abandoned the family for four years when she turned 12. By the time Marlene finds her way to her father's family, she discovers that she has twin half-brothers and that the dream of an intact family has ended for them too.

Silver is refreshingly unafraid of emotion as she holds the strands of her narrative taut and brings each of the intersecting dramas in this knowing first novel to a moving and resonant conclusion. *

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