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Growing up as a biracial nymphet in Houston, and other fictional crises of identity.

By Susan Coll
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW10

Sticks and Stones

War, statutory rape, child abuse and racism are hardly the stuff of comedy, but in Towelhead (Simon & Schuster, $22), Alicia Erian succeeds in blending this weird and sometimes shocking mix of elements into a funny, poignant and utterly readable first novel. (Her collection of short stories, The Brutal Language of Love, was published in 2001.)

Thirteen-year-old Jasira, of mixed Irish and Lebanese heritage, is smoldering jailbait; she is so naively yet overtly sexual that she tempts nearly every man she meets. Jasira is sent to live with her father in the blasé subdivisions of Houston after her mother's boyfriend demonstrates a perverse interest in shaving her pubic hair.

Both the humor and the domestic horrors at the heart of this novel are nicely understated, even if the actions depicted are often extreme. Jasira's father, Rifat, is a cold, abusive, yet strangely empathetic man who is not quite sure what to do with his daughter and her burgeoning womanhood. Although he "doesn't like bodies," he takes the mortified Jasira shopping for underwire bras and, later, sanitary pads, and asks "Would you describe your situation as light, medium, or heavy?"

Jasira must learn to navigate around her father's often irrational proclamations. She is taunted both at school and by the boy she babysits with slurs like "towelhead" and "sand nigger," but she is forbidden by her father to see her black boyfriend. North Africans, Rifat insists, are able to check "white" on forms, and he is proud of this ethnic distinction. Largely through dialogue and the first-person voice of Jasira, Erian effectively captures the nuanced motivations of these badly behaving characters without passing judgment; perhaps only an emotionally (if not sexually) innocent girl could convey tender feelings toward the army reservist who crudely seduces her or the father who slaps her around.

These dark narrative strands are complemented by screwball events that include a frozen dead cat as well as the surreal backdrop of the first Gulf War on CNN. Rafit is so absorbed by the war that he buys tray tables from Kmart so that they can eat dinner in front of the television. Jasira notes that this is good: They are seated far enough away from each other that it is hard for her father to hit her. Her observation is droll, but as sobering as the war. "What I learned about Daddy was that it was very hard for him to be nice, so when he was, it would've been wrong not to try to appreciate it."

Duck and Cover

In his first story collection, Mother of Sorrows (Pantheon, $20), Richard McCann vividly evokes postwar years that saw languid, chain-smoking, highball-drinking mothers driving welcome wagons while their angst-ridden children converted laundry rooms into bomb shelters. Your Survival in a Nuclear Attack, a civil defense manual distributed in school, urges his characters to consider shooting the family dog for sanitary reasons if the bomb falls, and to plan activities to boost morale, such as playing Parcheesi.

McCann holds such an exquisitely bright light over the landscape of 1950s suburban Maryland and the coming of age of his emotionally fragile, unnamed protagonist who appears in each interlocking story that the resulting book feels almost combustible. His slice of Silver Spring has been fashioned by a cash-poor developer whose idea of variation is to turn one house in each subdivision backward on its lot and to throw in a free picnic table as a deal-closing perk. On a more wrenching note, McCann captures the pain of a boy wrestling with his sexual identity and makes the experience feel authentic, even if one did not experiment with cross-dressing and have an unhealthy fixation on one's mother.

McCann's prose is full of achingly sensual detail and imagery. When the boy observes himself in his mother's clothes, he says: "I saw myself as beautiful, and guilty: the lipstick made my mouth seem the ripest rose, or a wound." The final story, in which the now-HIV-positive protagonist spends the weekend with a friend with breast cancer who has just lost her son, is so emotionally raw it ought to come with a warning. "Then we sit in silence, neither of us knowing what to say next. It's a draw, as it always is: Dead son trumps dead ex-lover, but AIDS trumps cancer. No matter how much the ante gets raised, no one ever wins the pot."

A Man of Many Faces

Set in the lush Kinta Valley of western Malaysia with the Japanese poised to invade during World War II, The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw (Riverhead, $24.95), traces the life of an enigmatic ethnic Chinese man named Johnny Lim, observed alternately through the eyes of his son, his wife and his best friend. The conceit of this ambitious debut by a young Malaysian writer is rich in potential: Johnny Lim named himself after the actor who played Tarzan in an era when the monikers of matinee idols were popular choices in Southeast Asia, resulting in a generation of names like Rock Hudson Ho and Valentino Wong. Depending on who is telling the story, Johnny is either a villain or a man struggling for survival in impossible circumstances. A famous business tycoon and community leader, Johnny Lim was also quite possibly a murderer, a communist, a distant husband and a betrayer of friends. The factory of the title is his trading company, which may be a front for illegal imports as well as drugs.

While the ingredients of a compelling historical drama are all here and Aw aims admirably high, his narrative might have benefited from some changes in exposition to bring the story into sharper focus. Although he intends to create a fluid portrait of Lim, the result is often more confusing than intriguing, and by the end Lim seems less a complex man than a merely distant one. A critical third of the novel is told through the static form of a diary, as Snow, Lim's wife, narrates a honeymoon odyssey with an outcome that seems unlikely. A line repeated with minor variation at least four times in the book is also curious: "Death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and forever." It is not clear what Aw means to convey with so much emphasis on this coda, given that his book is about history and teasing mysteries from the dead.

A Tangled Skein

While a love of the handicraft in question is not a prerequisite for appreciating Anne Bartlett's quiet debut, Knitting (Houghton Mifflin, $23), a tolerance for the subject won't hurt, and it may be just as well that the title and the balls of wool on the jacket will likely filter readership. Set in Southern Australia, Bartlett's introspective novel charts the grieving process of Sandra Fildes, an affluent, somewhat rigid college professor with a specialty in the history of textiles and related issues of women's work. Ten months after Sandra's husband dies of cancer, she meets the mercurial Martha McKenzie when they both help a stranger who has collapsed in the street. The women form an uneasy alliance when Sandra commissions Martha, knitter extraordinaire, to help with creations for her retro knitting exhibition.

The hugely talented Martha is a perfectionist who drives herself mad when she makes mistakes, and the question of whether she will be able to complete the work on time presents what little tension exists in this novel. But Knitting is less about plot than personal journey. Martha quite literally cannot let go of her baggage; she carries with her at all times three heavy bags filled with knitting mistakes. Sandra is forced to engage in some painful self-assessment, confronting unpleasant aspects of her personality that she was once able to hide behind the shield of her more affable, easygoing husband. She looks back on her 28-year marriage and makes the painful, poignant determination concerning her spouse, Jack, that she had been "Loving him too hard and all wrong." There are also nice juxtapositions of the age-old craft of knitting and modern technology. The screen saver on Sandra's computer flashes a random montage of pictures downloaded from her husband's digital camera, among them a picture of Jack, which frequently catches her off guard. To invoke the sort of knitting metaphor used liberally throughout the novel, each stitch along the way seems unremarkable, but the finished product has a subtle beauty.

Kudzu All Over Again

Gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson (Warner, $19.95), is chick lit with a Southern twist, cute and able if a bit too familiar. When Arlene "Lena" Fleet escaped Alabama 10 years before the novel begins, she made three vows to God: She would never go back to the small town of Possett, she would never tell another lie, and she would not have sex again until she married. Currently a college professor in Chicago, Lena has unresolved issues back home, among them the fact that she slept with all but one of the 53 boys in her sophomore class and that she intentionally killed the high school quarterback.

Enter Burr, her even-tempered, long-suffering, too-good-to-be-true tax-attorney boyfriend. He insists she return to Possett to confront her past, and he wants to come with her, even though her relatives are "garden-variety backwoods Alabama racists," and he happens to be black. The cast of loopy, dysfunctional characters sometimes veers toward stereotype: Lena's crazy mother roams the house in muumuus and galoshes. "On bad days she became terrified of opening canned food." The freshest character is arguably the South itself. For instance, the "heaps" -- the kudzu vines that overrun Jackson's Alabama -- make a frequent appearance and figure marginally but intriguingly in the plot. Jackson writes with a crisp voice and has a nice flair for language, but even with all the wacky tangents, the story itself seems tired. •

Susan Coll's most recent novel is "Rockville Pike."

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