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Reviewed: 'Georgia Bottoms' by Mark Childress, 'Open City' by Teju Cole and 'A Posthumous Confession' by Marcellus Emants.

February 20, 2011|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Mark Childs.
Author Mark Childs. (Brett Hall / Little / Brown )

Georgia Bottoms

A Novel

Mark Childress

Little, Brown: 288 pp., $24.99

This is Mark Childress' seventh novel, and it is a doozy. It is set, like his others (you may have read "Crazy in Alabama" or "One Mississippi") in the South, and the simple act of reading "Georgia Bottoms" releases tension; buttons are undone, shoes kicked off — man, is it hot.

Georgia Bottoms is not perfect, but she is fun to be with: "That was one secret to Georgia's cheerfulness: she thought about the things she wanted to think about, and blotted out everything else. Another secret: she was the exception to most rules." Georgia earns her living by diversifying her assets: each day of the week (with one day of rest) she entertains a different upstanding member of the community. Six Points, Ala., would be a much less exciting place without this Baptist belle.

When the married preacher decides to confess his Saturday assignations to the congregation, Georgia drowns him out by fainting in the aisle. This is just one example of her fortitude. To add to her income, Georgia sells quilts made by a settlement of black women on the Catfish River, some of them "the granddaughters of actual slaves." Georgia rationalizes doubling the price she paid for them: Marketing, she thinks, is the oldest profession. "You had to avert your eyes, fight off the image, and keep going," she thinks after an elderly visitor is caught drooling. But her heart is large. "Each man thought he was the only man. Each thought the whole idea was his idea, his gift the only gift. That was the secret to making a living, the Georgia way."

Open City

A Novel

Teju Cole

Random House: 260 pp., $25

This debut novel is Nigerian-born Teju Cole's first step toward posterity.

Julius, a young medical student completing his residency in psychiatry, wanders the streets of post- 9/11 New York to calm himself and to recover from a breakup. We fall in beside him. In his wanderings, he meets other immigrants: an old professor, a retired social worker, a museum guard and a Chinese tailor. In hearing their stories he absorbs the textures of their worlds — at the tailor's, he thinks "in that quiet, mote-filled shop, with the ceiling fans creaking overhead, and the wood-paneled walls disclosing nothing of our century.... I could easily have been in any one of the many countries to which Chinese merchants had traveled." His mind is crowded with his patients' stories, with scenes from various histories he reads of New Amsterdam, with memories of his childhood in Nigeria. A reader feels the density of his mind but also the fragility of his identity. The city gleams: ginkgo leaves in the rain, walking home after a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the signs, instincts and details in sharp relief after a mugging.

When Julius, whose voice the reader trusts, is reminded that he was the villain in someone else's life story (a fellow Nigerian won't let him forget that he forced himself on her), all those details fall away. They crumble without a voice we can trust. His observations are like counterfeit bills, like the bank built with slave labor, or the dream of prosperity that draws so many immigrants. Survival is what it boils down to — the great Darwinian default. Cole walks us up and down both sides of the curve of Julius' Möbius strip.

A Posthumous Confession

A Novel

Marcellus Emants, translated from the Dutch by J.M. Coetzee

New York Review Books: 194 pp., $14 paper

Dutch writer Marcellus Emants published this, his most famous novel, in 1894. It is, in every way, a fin de siècle novel, dripping with guilt and fear of the unknown, making its way under the burden of the newfangled psychiatry. In his introduction, J. M. Coetzee calls it "a singularly pure example" of the confessional novel.

Termeer is a despicable man, full of self-loathing. He spends his days tallying what the world owes him and the slights he suffered in grade school. He squirms under Emants' gaze like the man in Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground" (1864), and we cannot look away.

When the novel opens, Termeer has just murdered his wife. He has worked himself into a frenzy of paranoia and righteous indignation. Emants spins a suffocating web: "[I]t was as if all this grayness issued from my own interior, wrapped me in a cloud, and separated me from mankind." Reminiscent also of Poe, "A Posthumous Confession" illustrates the centrifugal introspection that the advent of psychiatry instilled in so many literary characters: Literature and revelation joined at the hip, till death do them part. And not even then.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

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