IN HER ESSAY, "Place in Fiction," Eudora Welty wrote that "fiction depends for its life on place . . . so irretrievably and so happily are recognition, memory, history, valor, love, all the instincts of poetry and praise, worship and endeavor, bound up in place. . . . Location is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course."
Some good novels this month suggest the truth of Welty's insight.
A MAN CANNOT CRY By Gloria Keverne Morrow. 610 pp. $19.95
AFRICA, that great throbbing metaphor for life, has always attracted novelists: Conrad, Greene, Bellow and Updike, and many others. Gloria Keverne grew up in Northern Rhodesia and lived there until wartime dangers forced her to move to Natal, South Africa. Her novel, A Man Cannot Cry, pulses with the life of her own struggling country, and with the life of all Africa besides. Like most other writers of this continent, black and white, from South Africa to Nigeria, from Ghana to Kenya, she writes of her land and a passionate love.
The story begins in 1958 -- when Northern Rhodesia was part of the tenuous Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland -- with the arrival of Dr. Than Profane at a small Quaker mission and hospital in the remote bush. He does not intend to stay, but this is a beautiful and mesmeric land that can hypnotise a man. Before long, he is "taking Africa like a drug" and thriving "like cut grass growing wild."
The doctor spends six years working in the tiny hospital, expanding its services, establishing bush clinics, and quickly earns an affectionate name from the local people, Njumwaice, or Bwana Cowboy. His methods, and sometimes his morals, are chracteristically American, brash, rough-hewn, deaf to both danger and defeat. Inevitably, he clashes with his conservative hosts. But he does much better with the local tribes -- there is a wonderful passage where he receives training as a witch doctor -- and some of the book's finest characters, lovingly portrayed, are Africans. Throughout the story, he grows in knowledge of Africa until Africa itself changes and, in 1964, Northern Rhodesia is reborn as Zambia.
This book is alive with people, places, and their interactions: births and deaths in both squalid hut and shiny hospital; cruel savages and a tame leopard; the glory of a canoe trip on the Zambezi River; and a white man dressing as a witch doctor to fight a smallpox epidemic; and in the background, the murmuring voices of a changing Africa, Lumumba, Tshombe, Kasavubu, Kaunda.
A Man Cannot Cry dramatizes all the conflicts and parallels of the white world and the black, the old Africa and the new, the familiar and the alien, the uncertain fears of the mind and the sure knowledge of the heart. Long, rich, and detailed, it is a wonderful book.
A FUTURE ARRIVED By Phillip Rock Seaview/Putnam. 288 pp. $16.95
IN popular English-language literature, the most enduring metaphor for order and decency in the face of repeated challenges is the land of England itself, her green hills, gray cities, and the rock-hard, quiet courage of her people. It is there from Dickens to Pym, and the metaphor carries an easy symbolism. We see the passing of old orders, and of older generations, while new generations burgeon . . . and yet, in the end, only the incidental details have changed.
Phillip Rock now completes his enormously popular Passing Bells trilogy with A Future Arrived, and it is, in all respects, the kind of novel that novel-readers love. It is well- written, both decorous and lively, filled with attractive characters caught in a critical situation that threatens not only their lives but their very way of life.
In the tradition of old-fashioned English family chronicles, it begins on an April morning in 1930. "One could tolerate a bit of flooding here and there if it meant crocus and daffodil, budding elm and beech. If it meant spring and the joyous promise of summer." Always, the land. But times, like the seasons, are changing, and on the second page we see the death of one of the Grevilles' elderly retainers. The last of the Victorian era is now surely gone. The future must be faced. And the future, for the Greville family, and the Rilkes and the Wood-Lacys, means a time of uneasy peace, followed by the inevitable war within the decade, the "future arrived."
Rock's characters meet the future in a variety of ways. The Earl of Stanmore, nearing 80, plans to rebuild the Pryory. Martin Rilke (like Edward R. Morrow) broadcasts news of the war to American radio. Determined young women see their men off to war and pray for their return. Over the novel's 10-year span, we watch schoolboys grow up to be RAF pilots, some of them to be mourned. But in the end, though some have died, the land has endured, the people have endured, and the social context itself, that gives it all meaning, has endured most brightly of all.
LEVANTINE By Peter Delacorte Norton. 364 pp. $15.95
SOME PLACES seem more foreign than others, and the Middle East, bristling with ancient peoples and equally ancient political tensions, is one of them. In Levantine, Peter Delacorte uses this locale in a particularly interesting way, producing a busy and compelling thriller as complex as the world it portrays.
Delacorte has had the good idea of inventing a country named Levantine, located on the borders of Israel and Jordan, which is unavoidably a whirlpool of political crosscurrents and inevitably a battleground for eternally warring factions of Israelis, Palestinians, terrorists, Armenian nationalists, and a varied array of Christian sects.
In the midst of it all, Los Angeles newspaper correspondent Andrew Chambers, struggling to stay alive and corresponding despite violence, deception, terrorism, and unreliable telephone lines, tries to make sense of it all. He struggles to unravel a knot that includes an Israeli ambassador assassinated in Bonn, a possibly corrupt Israeli defense minister, a missing terrorist, a murdered Austrian reporter, the Austrian's nubile 18-year-old girlfriend, and a beautiful and sexually fierce French actress who may -- or, more likely, may not -- be a dream come true for Chambers.
Levantine is a lively thriller and, if the writing is occasionally heavyhanded, the plot is as taut and as danger-ridden as the political scene of the Middle East itself.
HOT WIRE By James Brown Arbor House. 237 pp. $15.95
CALIFORNIA. Los Angeles. White beaches, sunshine, orange groves. "It's always summer here," Tania Baer's brother writes to her while she was living in a Chicago tenement, so Tania takes herself and her three boys off to L.A.
But for Tania and her sons, the central figures of James Brown's Hot Wire, Southern California isn't much like summer at all. Tania is slinging burgers at Denny's, 15-year-old Lonny keeps the California Highway Patrol busy bringing him home each time he runs away, Alex is hustling cocaine and stealing cars, and 20-year-old Sonny, who once, long ago, made a television commercial, is pumping gas and going to auditions, being turned down every time, acting in a rotten play at some crummy little theater, trying to keep Lonny in school and trying not to give up entirely on Alex. It doesn't feel like summer where they are and you can't see the orange groves at all.
Brown does a good job of keeping the reader mindful of the California setting, but he uses that familiar scene only as a bright contrast to his immediate story of people whose world is bounded by fast food joints, cocaine deals, quick paint jobs on stolen lowriders, and dreams that barely have the strength to take root.
His tone is angular and jaunty, vulgar and hip, like his characters, some of whom are survivors, and like the hungry and hustling side of California life he depicts so vividly in Hot Wire.
THE KILLING ANNIVERSARY By Ian St. James Morrow. 659 pp. $17.95
THE politics and personalities of Ireland in the 20th century offer a novelist more stories than he may know what to do with. That is the case, unfortunately, in The Killing Anniversary by Ian St. James.
Three characters represent Ireland's warring factions. Sean Connors, born with the Republic in 1922, is the son of a famed patriot who dies violently for his beliefs. Matt Riordan, the son of another kind of Irish nationalist (who also dies violently), is an IRA terrorist. Each grows up bearing an ingrained hatred for the other, both as a representative of a political position and as an individual. And then there is the wealthy Ulster peer, Lord Averdale, who cares only for himself and his fortune.
The first half of the novel, which itself covers half a century, is set in Ireland, in bogs and bars and boreens, and it reeks with the rage and frustration and lust for revenge of its characters. Action is swift and violent, the inevitable legacy of the troubled world that shapes its characters.
But when the action shifts away from Ireland -- and away from the forces that moved them so powerfully, and so believably, before -- the plot becomes arbitrary and coincidental. Sean builds a business empire in London. Matt languishes, for years, in a jail. Lord Averdale lusts after a woman and builds an art collection at home and an agricultural empire in Kenya. At the end, the story was become so poorly focused that, when two of the characters die violently, they do so offstage, and the third is lost sight of all together.
The first half of The Killing Anniversary, then, is vivid and moving, alive with the spirit of a people and a place. The second half, in which the author forgets the source that motivates his characters, reads like nothing more than the work of an efficient novelist. That's not bad. It's not what the book might have been.