TAKE A GOOD LOOK By Tor Seidler Farrar, Straus and Giroux 261 pp. $18.95
TAKE A Good Look is a novel of revelations disguised as transformations. Its title, like the story itself, is exhortation: Don't overlook the seemingly plain, devoted girl close by, the brightest flower is not the enduring one, things -- and especially people -- are rarely what we take them for.
Near book's end, protagonist Paul Motley stands waiting by elevators, peering into a nearby smokers' lounge: "It was deserted now, dramaless, unless he was meant to extrapolate from the stale cloud of cigarette smoke in the air. And if he did, no doubt he would get it wrong, mistake the substance for the shadow -- or the shadow for the substance -- as he'd done in every other instance."
The novel begins with Paul peering into the third-floor apartment in a brownstone across the street, whose inhabitant, S. Farr, he has spotted by chance and, he imagines (taking shadow for substance), fallen in love with. Borne to New York by aversion for his old life, Paul now is swept by the city's tides, his mute pursuit of S. Farr bearing him into a waiter's job and a circle of friends, most of them aspiring actors, that includes the Featherstone twins.
About those twins, flamboyantly talented Alex, steady Mick, the book's reversals gather. Alex marries Stevie Farr and sinks into a life of bitterness, drinking and inaction; Mick, forever eclipsed by his brother, stumbles into stardom.
Seidler's narrative is wonderfully put together, and the reader has everywhere here the sense of mirrors turning full about, casting off bright flashes, sudden images, eclipses, before falling into alignment. Author of four children's books, Seidler has also a marvelous way with names. "Farr" suggests so well the gulf in which Paul's attraction to Stevie founders. "Featherstone" captures the twins' several dualities, "Motley" the patchwork of Paul's life.
Seemingly insignificant things, and not those we carefully engineer, make up our fate, Seidler suggests. What seems chance in our lives may well be fate, shadow falling about us and obscuring what we see, but all the time hardening to substance at the center of our lives.
This skillful first novel is built about wholly believable characters, each of them eccentric at the core as are we all, each of them hanging on through sudden turns to come up blinking in eternally new streets and days.
INSTEAD OF YOU By Constance Schraft Ticknor and Fields 206 pp. $18.95 LOUISE ASHER, the protagonist of Constance Schraft's Instead of You, knows all too well that her life is dominated, like a moon in thrall to planet and sun, by two presences: Richard, her lover, and Charlotte, her sister, recently dead. Lou would not be surprised, the reader feels, to look in a mirror and see, instead of her own face, one of these others -- and for much of this fine first novel, that is just what she does. Even the book's conclusion maintains this balance of ambivalence: Is her final flight truly escape, or simply another abdication of her life?
"Since we've been girls, her fortune cookies had predicted adventure, while mine began, 'Beware,' " Lou says of Charlotte early on. She loves Richard more because he doesn't fall for Charlotte than for any other reason.
Much later, setting off for a lunch date where she intends to break up with Richard, Lou first changes clothes at her mother's insistence, then winds up doing Richard's dishes and trimming his hair. "Somewhere along the line, our lives had shrunk," Lou realizes. Abandoning her own life, she has returned home to help temporarily after Charlotte's death and remained there like a shipwreck survivor, taking on household chores, caring for her sister's two daughters, finding all applicants for the housekeeper position unsuitable. At Christmas she charges the girls' gifts to Charlotte's credit cards, daring anyone to challenge her, and at the library unhesitatingly presents Charlotte's card.
Lou's first intimation of the despair at the center of Charlotte's life -- a life Lou has always idealized -- comes halfway into the novel, as more and more daylight begins to show between the cracks of Lou's face superimposed over that of her sister. Charlotte, she realizes, had become as fanatic about building up her compost heap as she'd once been about fighting injustice. She'd worried over the pH of her soil, ritually put out cups of beer to drown slugs. "Now I took care of her children because she hadn't been careful enough to stay alive. And I was no better. My life had meant so little to me that the first chance I got, I walked right out on it."
The full charge of that despair, however, comes only with a viewing of Richard's first film, its heroine obviously, powerfully, modeled on Charlotte.
We all invent our lives from shreds of others we've known and loved, like birds weaving nests of whatever material is at hand. Constance Schraft offers a gentle, often very funny novel that says a lot about who we want to be and what we become in failing.
A SCRAMBLING AFTER CIRCUMSTANCE By Margaret-Love Denman Viking. 226 pp. $18.95 AT THE END of her days, half her body already claimed by death after a series of strokes, Eula B., a country woman, lies on a bed in daughter Toy's trailer in town, her mind, like Yeats's long-legged fly, ranging freely on the stream of time. She recalls early illness, the tonic salesman from St. Louis who seduced then abandoned her, her abortion at the hand of midwife Quester Franklin, the loss of two brothers, her marriage to kindly Gus, Toy's birth and increasing distance from her, the slow loss of her home.
"Places and things do shrink when the need for them is gone," Eula B. thinks and in A Scrambling After Circumstance Margaret-Love Denman gives us a remarkable first novel of one woman's farewell to life.
Among the many delights of this novel is its fine, sure voice; Denman has a deft way both with authentic Southern speech patterns ("Halfway up in the day on Sunday, and he still didn't have a belt on") and the figurative language often resulting ("The dark upstairs fell back around Papa and me.").
She has also, surprising in a new novelist, an adroit touch with transitions. Eula B.'s story moves seamlessly along, in and out of the time stream, past concerns surfacing in the present, present sensations sinking toward past events. The writing, overall, is immediate and sensuous, unsentimental. Here, for instance, Eula B. confronts, in memory, the loss of her home: "When the renters were gone, there was almost nothing left of me. The flowerbeds with the perfect circles of white bricks, so many little teeth guarding the azaleas, the fresh nests, hollowed out by a wide hen's breast, rich and thick, the doilies with their starched dancing skirts, fresh curtains smelling deep of sunshine, all of it had the renters' marks on them."
Eula B. Freeman of Route 6, Mount Hermon, Miss., has become a stranger in what's left of her own life. But the bleakness of that life seems to her almost joyful in comparison to the daily drear of daughter Toy's and granddaughter Jimmy Lee's lives, and in her final days, almost as though to leave them behind as legacy, Eula B. searches for continuities, moments of grace, understandings.
BLUEPRINTS By Sara Vogan Bantam. 278 pp. $19.95 IN Blueprints Emery Lannier at age 40 crashes headlong into everything she's spent her adult life trying to leave behind. Returning home because she's been told her father is at death's door, she finds nothing has changed. Her mother drifts on a cloud of alcohol and madness, speaking to an imaginary "Mrs. White," living her discrete, parallel life. Her father still speaks only to give orders or instruction. Brother Drew, her only real family, has become caretaker.
Emery recalls the endless dislocations of her life and realizes that she remains in thrall to her often uncaring, often abusive parents: "I realized no matter how many places I'd lived, no matter how many lovers or jobs, in some deep way I didn't want to acknowledge, I'd never truly left home. As I listened to the rise and fall of their voices I knew the depth of me was still anchored to these people."
Shortly after Emery's arrival, her mother's cigarette starts a fire which, fed by splashed bourbon, destroys the house. This smaller crisis feeds directly into the larger crisis on which the novel concludes.
Drew and Emery return to the customary shelter of one another, even sleeping in the same bed as they did as children. All we ever learned how to do was to get by, Drew tells her at one point; if that's the only skill you've got, you don't have much to give.
Blueprints may well be the finest novel I've read dealing with the devastation of the alcoholic family. Emery's own dives into addiction, her inability to commit to a relationship, the way her life has hardened to stone, the same at 40 as at 20 -- it's all so convincing, so right. Addiction trims away personality, individuality, higher functions; it reduces one to a set of predictable, inevitable responses. Like all good fiction, like our own daily lives, Blueprints is about learning again what it is to be human. James Sallis is a poet and novelist who lives in Fort Worth.