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Mortal Thoughts

By Michael Kernan
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page C02

ENTER SANDMAN

By Stephanie Williams

McWitty. 322 pp. $22

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I didn't think she could do it.

Stephanie Williams's first novel starts out like something from Self magazine, for which she once worked: a chirpy girls' chronicle of split ends and boy problems, awash in trendy cliches ("over the top," "wild child," "go for it," "control freak," "you go, girl," etc.), an average of two italicized words per page and instructive adjectives, as in: "In her last e-mail, a month and a half ago, she'd told Mitch all about her prestigious new job at SoHo's hottest gallery."

Williams goes on to introduce a dozen characters who are often neatly described ("Everything about her was too rigid: sheet-smooth black hair pulled back too tightly, affecting a makeshift facelift; thin lips; and the tallest stilettos in SoHo") but who seem oddly interchangeable as parts of the plot mechanism.

After 43 pages of "1997 -- Life -- New York," Trisha, the heroine, shifts to "1991 -- College -- Philadelphia." Here we learn where she is coming from and how she met various friends who turn out to be important in her later life.

She revisits college days four times, and each time the less-than-avid reader is hard put to pick up the narrative. I did a good deal of thumbing back through the pages to remind myself what was happening in the previous flashback and which boyfriend was which. There are a bunch of them.

The most interesting one, really the center of the novel, is James Morales, "the 'bad boy' artist who thumbed his nose at the art establishment by entering a self-imposed exile just after shooting to fame in the late 1990s." Jim has been terribly scarred in a fire and is a very bitter young man. The scars are never described in detail, which may be a good thing, but on the other hand we are never sure if his ugliness is partly in his mind. Trisha seems alternately repelled and attracted by him. In any case, he turns out to be her truest friend.

So far, for me, the book was not of great interest. But then the pace stepped up. In the midst of her busy little life, Trisha learns she has terminal breast cancer. She goes to see the half-blind James, who fails to recognize her right away and asks if he can help her. "She had decided to say what she had to say matter-of-factly. She had neglected to take into account that she had never before said it aloud, made it real in that manner. Halfway through, her voice cracked and blurred, as if a glass of milk had broken and coated the inside of her throat. 'I hope you can. I'm dying.' "

Abruptly the book rises to a new level. The italicized words almost disappear as Trisha takes on real life. The passage telling how she received the news jumps off the page, for it comes from the heart. Stephanie Williams herself was in late-stage, terminal breast cancer when she wrote the book. It was rushed into print so that it would be out in time for her to see it.

"She gave him the short version of what had happened. That a couple of weeks ago, she had felt a lump. . . . How the doctor said it grew too quickly to be a tumor, how it was too big and painful to be a tumor, how the technicians were so sure it wasn't a tumor that they joked about it. Then they came back into the room with ashen faces and reinforcements. . . . How she knew it was bad when her primary doctor cried."

The worst part was the loss of her hair.

"Please, God, not the hair. Does that make me the vainest person on the planet? That I'd rather get my breasts cut off, throw up repeatedly and die a slow, painful death than be bald?" She buys a wig. She buys four wigs. She puts off having her head shaved until hair falls out in chunks. She is a young, pretty woman, and nothing strikes at her harder than this. "Every morning she painted on her fake eyebrows and eyeliner. There was no need for mascara; she had no lashes."

In the acknowledgments Williams thanks her friends for hurrying the job through, to give her "the joy and peace that comes from knowing I will go to my deathbed a published novelist."

As I say, I resisted "Enter Sandman" for quite a while, and especially I resented the publisher's eager use of the fact of the author's illness to promote the book.

But it works. It is not elegantly written. The dogged description of gestures leads to some truly strange sentences, as in "Then he reached into his pants pocket and lit another smoke." And Trisha is certainly not much of a tragic figure. But it works.


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