IT IS A MATTER FOR CELEBRATION that there is not a poor book in this batch of five recent novels. What is even a greater occasion for rejoicing is that all five are first novels, so the reader is granted the pleasurable feelings of being in on what may well be the start of one -- or more -- distinguished careers in fiction.
I will start with Lynne Schwartz's Rough Strife, not because I have ranked these books in some rigid way and it is the best, but because, having read all five a month ago, it is the one that sticks most pertinaciously in my mind. The fact is, I have never read a better novel about marriage. If these characters and events are the result of the writer's own experience, it is a first-rate recreation; if she is not now and never has been married, then it is a piece of virtuoso, imaginative creation.
Caroline is 45 when the novel begins. Ivan, her husband, is "in a position of power at the Metropolitan Museum," their two daughters are away from Manhattan, where they all live, at summer camp. As the book opens Caroline and Ivan are having intercourse, he rises and announces he is going jogging. She waits for him to return, and as it gets late, far beyond the time he was expected home, she thinks grimly of Gauguin. She conjures up terrible fates for him in the park: "She felt tears coming, but she would not weep for him, the bastard. There had always been something elusive about him. Let him go, then. Let it all go. Comforting visions of her life without him sprang up like magic flowers, unfurling as she watched. She would have the bedrooms all to herself." Of course he returns, his explanation for his prolonged absence entirely plausible.
Offhandedly Ivan sings an evocative song, and the novel moves backyard with the memory each has of it, into their meeting in Rome in the late '40s, and then, with fine inevitability, into all the expected events of a marriage: courtship, the early years, pregnancy, raising of children, careers (she is a professor of mathematics), their affairs (she is relieved at being with someone who does not know her so well), their differences ("They went to the movies a lot, but she liked films about love and family bonds, films of desire and strife, betrayal and sacrifice, while he liked films about politics -- struggle and power, strategy and intrigue"), the inevitable decline in desire. They live together through '60s and the advent of the women's movement.
The great gratification of Rough Strife, this superb depiction of the trials, strains and pleasures of married life, is that Schwartz is willing to demonstrate with no embarrassment or apology that these two people, uncommon in some ways (they are both intelligent, educated, sensitive white professionals) share the ills and stresses common to us all. Schwaretz writes elegantly, thinks fairly and sensibly, and understands everything about her subject. With Rough Strife, she makes an easy, effortless entry into the world of superior fiction.
Richard Bausch has written a book distinguished by its distance from the customary first-novel subjects. No childhood nostalgia, no celebration of boyhood or young manhood anguish here; instead, he has written a perfectly wrought imaginative experience that comes to life at once, and stays alive throughout the entire extent of its telling.
Bausch's theme is not especially unusual. Graham Greene has explored it a number of times: the crisis of faith that comes to a committed, religious man through contact with unlovable humanity.
Monsignor Vincent Shepherd, the priest in Real Presence, is aging, discouraged, tired and sick. He has had a serious heart attack and is assigned to a country parish in rural Virginia, a parish previously served by a beloved priest. Monsignor Shepherd, in contact to his predecessor, is withdrawn and bitter: he is expecting death, but his visitors do not include that august personage. Instead a grapes-of-wrath family arrive, Duck Bexley, his wife and their five children. Elizabeth Bexley is expecting her sixth child. They have come to the area to find work. There is none, and so the family becomes the responsibility of the priest, camping in the rectory, invading every corner of his existence and his consciousness and straining the virtue of charity he has sworn to practice.
Bexley is a Korean war veteran, an ex-convict, and now mortally ill with lupus: "Life had gotten away from him." His wife is a strong, loving accepting woman who is not easy on the priest, and will not allow him to retreat from them. The children are, well, children of such an uncertain existence, secretive, distrustful, pilfering, noisy. Bausch is concerned with discovering if Monsignor Shepherd can survive the onslaught of this unwashed, demanding family, if he can learn to accept and love the unlovable, if his Christianity will disintegrate before this severe test. Long before we reach the end and the answer, we have accepted as perfectly believable the person of the priest and the real and terrible presence of the family, as well as the situation, and the place. All this is a tribute to Bausch's skill with words, with characters, with the uncomfortableness of the human condition.
Jane Smiley has given her first novel an Iowan background, not the expected soy-bean and corn farms, but a horse ranch, the only one in the state, it would seem. In the foreground she has placed a family, dominated by the rigid and redoubtable convert-to-Catholicism, Kate Karlson, who breeds horses, trains and shows them , teaches children to ride them and puts her own four children through strict equestrian paces. Her hopes for an Olympic team rider are pinned on one son, but she is demanding of the others as well.
Smiley moves behind the eyes of one child, one adult, after the other, allowing us entry into each consciousness, each response to the required life of horses and horse shows. This shuttling viewpoint is one of the novel's flaws, I think. It results in a lack of focus which is disconcerting even as it provides us with far more information about every character than would be permitted if the story had been told, as I thought it might have been, from Kate's point of view, or even the daughter's, the periodically weeping girl who has our sympathy through the height of her adolescence.
The novel comes to a dramatic and terrible climax with a fatal riding accident. We are prepared for it because we have felt that Kate's demands on her family are too great for her loving and dutiful offspring to survive. Barn Blind has the advantage of a milieu seldom so well-known by a writer as Smiley knows this horse farm and all its peripheral activities, and the disadvantage of too much documentation, too many facts and details of setting. But most of the time, with the Karlson's and the other horsey people, we are interested in them and concerned for their fates. Jane Smiley is impressive in her fictional debut.
Herbert Mason is a scholar and professor of religion and Islamic history who has turned to fiction with Summer Light. Fifty-year-old writer Paul Halcomb goes to a private island in Maine to work, to put his family behind him, and to achieve some separation from "old involved feelings." He is struck by the curious light on the island; he tells time by it because his watch has broken. A disturbed young woman, Barbara, sails her little boat into his cove, annoying him at first by this loss of privacy. But his loneliness and her despair at the death of her boyfriend create a bond. They sustain each other, they cook and drink together, he restores her sense of being a woman, and they make love. The end of this short, almost idyllic story is both poignant and poetic. It is a lovely, evocative novella, Chekovian in size and tone, and written with discreet charm and unusual taste.
There is a parallel between Mason's subject and Carolyn Doty's in A Day Late. Her characters too are a middle-aged man, Sam Batinovich, who travels to sell a cleaning compound in the Northwest, and a 17-year-old girl he gives a ride to. Katy Daniels is fragile and pregnant and is going home to upper-class parents in Berkeley, California. Sam is torn by grief for his young daughter who has just died of a brain tumor; his concern for Katy is colored by his anger and his feeling of impotence before the inexorable truths of death and suffering. There are other memorable characters introduced to us during the journey, but the main drama is played out between these two in the day they are together.
Carolyn Doty writes wonderfully -- there is no other adverb suitable for her skilful control and the sensitivity she displays in the course of her vivid story. I relished every page of this book, and predict any lover of serious fiction will respond to it in the same way. But hurry: I am late in calling it to your attention. Published in mid-April, it may have worn out its welcome on the shelves of bookstores and been returned, the sad fate of too many novels which deserve a long and celebrated life.