By Julia Livshin
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Close Encounters of an Everyday Kind

Kathryn Davis's writing is an acquired taste. Devotees of the straight story, of the neatly unfolding narrative that builds methodically to a climax and culminates in a coherent and satisfying way, may be driven to distraction by Davis's protean, mischievous, unruly prose. Her sixth novel, The Thin Place (Little, Brown, $23.95), is set in the New England town of Varennes, the site of a fictional ill-fated boat trip that has come to be known as the Sunday School Outing Disaster. This century-old tragedy and snippets about the interior life of the unfortunate schoolteacher who chaperoned -- "consigned for eternity to feel the little limbs drift past her, always close enough to feel, always far enough away to be just out of reach" -- hang over the narrative, but the primary focus is on the motley inhabitants of present-day Varennes. These include Helen Zeebrugge, a spry nonagenarian stuck in an old-age home full of ninnies; her son Piet, a soulful ladies' man; Chloe Brock, a high school French teacher and Piet's cold fish of a girlfriend; and journalist Billie Carpenter, a newcomer to town. The story opens, almost nonchalantly, with the discovery of a body on the beach by three school friends. One of them, Mees Kipp, turns out to have an unusual gift: She can coax the dead back to life.

No amount of character sketching or plot summary, however, can begin to convey the experience of reading this strange and delightful novel. Davis gives voice to anything that's alive -- Mees's dog, a beaver enjoying a swim, lichen -- and juggles human and nonhuman perspectives as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her narrative includes police logs, horoscopes, garden almanacs and disembodied meditations on creation. Somehow in Davis's hands none of it seems outlandish or self-consciously eccentric. Davis is sly and playful, but also serious about exposing the spiritual lining of everyday phenomena. She makes you want to slow down and follow her tangents, reminding us that "every single thing that happens in a life is like Chekhov's Gun, trustfully casting before it the shadow of its own final shape, if only we knew how to see it clearly."

He Must Go Down to the Sea Again

The sea, like plant and bird life, is one of those subjects about which many of us are hopelessly oblivious -- and seem content to remain so. We can point out a pigeon and a maple tree, and we know not to step on a jellyfish when we come across one on the beach, but that's about the extent of it. The young narrator of The Highest Tide (Bloomsbury, $23.95), Jim Lynch's accomplished first novel, acknowledges these limitations: "I grew up hearing seemingly intelligent grown-ups say 'what a beautiful lake,' no matter how many times we politely educated them it was a bay , a briny backwater connected to the world's largest ocean." Then he proceeds to seduce the reader with descriptions of the sea-borne wonders washed up in his front yard, the tidal flats of Puget Sound.

Miles O'Malley is a brainy, Rachel Carson-worshiping 13-year-old with an entrepreneurial streak. His summer job selling fresh clams to the local Thai restaurant and collecting unusual specimens for public aquariums is the perfect channeling of his fascination with marine life. But Miles's hobby begins to pay serious dividends when he discovers a beached giant squid, "the world's largest invertebrate with the biggest eyes of any earthling," during one of his midnight rambles in his kayak. When he follows this up with another extraordinary sighting -- of a prehistoric-looking deep sea animal called a ragfish, usually only seen in the bellies of sperm whales -- he finds himself in the middle of a media firestorm.

"You were put here to do great things," Miles's best friend, Florence, an elderly psychic, tells him. How Miles deals with the attention while negotiating the more common obstacles of adolescence -- his parents' rocky marriage, a burning crush on his former babysitter, Florence's physical decline -- are ingredients of one momentous summer. Lynch is a natural storyteller, and he brings the sea to our door. He also accomplishes the admirable feat of rendering the voice of a 13-year-old both believable and engrossing. Even as those out-of-this-world sea creatures -- giant cucumbers that disgorge their innards when spooked and then regenerate them on the spot; barnacles with reproductive organs "rolled up like fire hoses" -- threaten to steal the show.

Challenged by the Half-Dozen

If only the human Barnacles in Galt Niederhoffer's debut effort, A Taxonomy of Barnacles (St. Martin's, $24.95) had something as interesting to recommend them. The cutesy, clever premise applies Darwin's ideas about natural selection (before Galapagos finches, he studied barnacles) to the comic misadventures of the Barnacles, an Upper East Side Jewish family. Don't worry, though, you won't have to dust off your copy of The Origin of Species . Apart from randomly tossed off bits of evolution lingo -- "divergence" and "variation" make several appearances in the first four pages -- Niederhoffer doesn't try to cull meaning from this socio-scientific overlay. The Barnacles are really the Baranskis of Brighton Beach. When Barry, the hardworking son of immigrants, made his fortune as New York's Pantyhose Prince, he moved up in the world, and his six daughters and two wives (one ex) are now comfortably ensconced in a labyrinthine Park Avenue apartment. The girls -- Benita, Beryl, Belinda, Beth, Bridget and Bell -- range in age from 10 to 29, and each is meant to have vivid distinguishing characteristics. One is a science nerd, one is musical, one is pretty, one is a competitive "fire-breathing brat." But as the book gets underway, Niederhoffer seems to forget about character development, or else seems to think that one trait per person should do the trick.

The engine of the story is supposed to be a Lear-like challenge issued by Barry during Passover Seder. A believer in Social Darwinism, Barry is concerned that the lifestyle he has lavished on his girls has made them soft. So to prod their survival instincts into action he promises his entire fortune to the daughter who can conceive of a way to immortalize the Barnacle name. What we mostly read about for the next 300 neverending pages, however, is the insipid cat-and-mouse game between the two eldest Barnacle sisters and their romantic counterparts, the WASPy identical twins who live next door (the Finches, of course). As for the resolution to Barry's contest -- good luck making sense of it.

Truly the most noteworthy thing about this novel is the alarming absence of editorial oversight. Not only is it twice as long as it should be, but it's full of sloppy repetitions, flaccid storytelling and inane dialogue. Jane Austen this is not.

Lighting Out for the Territories

In 1914, the American painter Rockwell Kent, seeking to "slough off the baubles" and frippery of city living, left Manhattan for the remote fishing town of Brigus, Newfoundland. Eventually joined by his wife and three children, Kent spent a year there -- painting, befriending the locals and making a go of the simple life. But on the eve of World War I, his left-leaning politics and outspoken enthusiasm for German culture struck a raw nerve in the small, guarded community and ultimately got him deported on suspicion of being a German spy.

Kent is best known for his stark landscapes of places like Greenland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego and Monhegan Island in Maine. He is also famous for his black-and-white illustrations of Moby-Dick .

Canadian writer Michael Winter's bold and ambitious new novel, The Big Why (Bloomsbury, $24.95), is a mock memoir of Kent's Newfoundland experiment, narrated in Kent's idiosyncratic, free-associating voice. Its subject is not so much Kent's views on art -- though he does register his objection to abstract painting, which is "like a cat that ignores you and says, smugly, I am the reason for living" -- or his growing pains as a painter. Rather, it's a fascinating plunge into the workaday goings-on of a north Atlantic island community at the beginning of the 20th century, where sealing and shipwrecks are ways of life.

Winter's artistry extends to capturing the local rhythms of speech, the bleak and stunning scenery and simple domestic tableaux: "There was a tortoiseshell barrette in her hair. It was the only thing pretty in the house." The Big Why is also a frank meditation on family, sexual desire and self-realization. A brash, self-indulgent, serial philanderer who believes that his greatest obligation is to be true to his own nature, Kent does not always come off as the most likable fellow. But in Winter's textured depiction, he exudes intensity and is always interesting. ยท

Julia Livshin is a former staff editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

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