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Superior we stand

Trespass A Novel; Valerie Martin; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 290 pp., $25

September 23, 2007|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

AFTER his famous journey to the East, so the story goes, Marco Polo is booked on a lecture tour to the United States. In Texas, the first question he gets is: "What do you think of Houston, Mr. Polo?"

American exceptionalism. American self-absorption. The blindness to other cultures, other kinds of pride, other ways to fight for them. That blindness has ludicrously skewed our recent efforts to shape the world (in order to sculpt, you need to see).

Books, essays and newspaper columns have treated the theme, but not much fiction has, though Joseph Conrad did so for the imperial exceptionalism of his day. Now Valerie Martin, with her cryonic eye and odd current of tenderness, has written a dark and wickedly diverting novel about the storm-driven erosion of Fortress America.

Martin, a writer of imaginative precision, renders her large themes with individual and social examples as sharp-edged as crystals. Her novel "Italian Fever" depicted Italy through the eyes of a comically naive and insatiable American girl. The particular fortress undermined in "Trespass" is the amiable and privileged Dale family, its privilege not that of money (though the Dales are well off) but of taste and cultural standing. Brendan is a tenured professor, at work on a book about the Crusades; his wife, Chloe, is an illustrator, with an exquisite edition of "Walden" to her credit. Their son, Toby, is drifting -- but it's a drift nicely anchored in a graduate program at New York University.

The Dales are the bluest of blue-staters, impregnated (and impregnable) with liberal tolerance -- that is, until Toby turns up engaged to Salome, a dark-browed, sensual, strong-willed Croatian American. Salome is utterly indifferent to the display of Dale treasure: their assured virtue, their hallmark civility, their rustically beautiful house in the woodsy countryside, their cat named Michael.

The duel between Chloe and Salome begins right away, when the Dales invite her and Toby to an expensive restaurant. Chloe and Brendan politely take the menus the waitress hands them; Salome -- in a deliberate parody of the master-servant reality veiled by the politeness -- asks that hers be set down by her plate. The Dales order a fine wine; Salome sticks to sweet black coffee. "Barbarian at the gate," Chloe thinks. "My son is being abducted." Each scene that follows torments her further. She winces when Salome gives Toby a casual caress, lies awake to hear whether Salome joins him in bed, erupts in near hysterics when the couple announces Salome's pregnancy.

Martin is writing something far more troubling than acute social comedy: Before long, it is the civilized Chloe, her fixation grown wilder, who is the barbarian, while Salome takes on a richness of character that is part shrewdness and part instinctive spontaneity, quite removed from Chloe's mannered facade. Mainly, though, the difference comes from the darkness within Salome, a darkness having nothing to do with insular American concerns. It's the world's darkness, which Martin introduces bit by bit, alternating it with the Dales' self-absorbed story.

Chloe's possessive fears swell into obsessive mania, hastened by the appearance of an immigrant poacher on their property. As realism, this is exaggerated, but the novel is also a parable; a Daumier caricature is inserted into a Manet picnic. Subtly, Martin likens Chloe's state to the national xenophobia that developed after Sept. 11, when jarred Americans sensed that the outside world was not only there but also threatened to infringe.

"She feels her territory has been invaded and she is under attack," reflects Brendan, who is more open and self-questioning than his wife. "She wants to throw the intruders out, go back to the ways things were, but this, she must realize, is not an option, and so she's panicked. They have a poacher and they have a pregnant soon-to-be-daughter-in-law; the outsiders are insiders now, staking their claims."

And now Salome and the world's dark story take over. When Salome was a baby, her family was caught in the reciprocal butchery in the Balkans. Fleeing the Serbian incursion into their village, her father made his way, with his two surviving children, to Louisiana, where he struggled to make a living as a shrimper. Jelena, the mother, had been killed.

Or so the father maintained. When Salome discovers, right after her marriage, that this was a lie rooted in the tragedy of the time and that Jelena is alive, she takes off to find her. At this point, Martin fashions the awful account of Jelena's long captivity by Serbian fighters; the endless serial rapes, along with other Croatian women penned in a battlefield brothel; her eventual escape. The writing is sinewy and breath-stopping; Martin's fineness of perception only intensifies it. (A fellow prisoner's way of slightly gentling the rapes: Tell each attacker he's "different.")

Bits of Jelena's story have been interspersed throughout the Dale sections; the effect is initially mystifying. But Martin's purpose later becomes devastatingly clear: to place a comfortably enclosed culture side by side with the wider horrors it ignores. Salome's quest and Jelena's ordeal break through that gilded obliviousness.

In the book's resolution, there's more didactic forcing and wrapping-up than the aforementioned authorial tenderness quite justifies, and certainly the jolting contrast between the brutal Croatian story and the novel's "civilized" sections suggests two books arbitrarily juxtaposed. That juxtapositon is not arbitrary, though -- even if its effect is violent. Martin's theme, triumphantly worked, is the disastrous existence of a tight, rich world, tumor-like in its encapsulated power, within the surging universe of the not-forever-quiescent afflicted.

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