A GOOD BABY By Leon Rooke Knopf. 298 pp. $19.95
READING SOME novels is like taking a long trip in a fast car on a superhighway. Others take you for a quiet drive through a familiar neighborhood.
Then there's Leon Rooke's A Good Baby. You're off the pavement on the first page and into the laurel thickets. The springs are creaking, the car's never out of low gear, "the motor withery and pinging its complaints . . . the brakes smelling, the car clanging against sapling, bush and rock . . . weighted bushes slooshing against window and door."
But who's complaining? You're headed for high and unfamiliar country and you're clearly riding with a master.
Leon Rooke is a Southerner, from North Carolina, living in Canada, who has spent the past 30 years reinventing the English language, with great ingenuity if not always to wide acclaim. (As he writes of a character in one of his stories, "bubbles rise out his stickpin yet no one stares.") He is the author of some 100 cunning and hilarious short stories, a couple of plays, and three novels, including Shakespeare's Dog (which is about just what it says it's about) and this one, which is about a baby, and a good one.
Rooke is an original in Doctor Johnson's original meaning of the word, deliberately eccentric and more than a little disturbing. Every word in his hands becomes something other-than-it-was; and since the people and places in books are made out of words, they become odd and unfamiliar too. Rooke's stories take the relationship between men and women, between people and their things -- cars, dogs, a bag of washers, a mink trap, a knife -- and twist them into new shapes. He is a deliciously inventive, sometimes maddeningly difficult, always rewarding writer, whose exuberant love for the language brings to mind that other extravagantly underrated American fabulist, R.A. Lafferty.
A Good Baby is a quest fable, a murder mystery and a morality tale all rolled up into one, set in the "switchbacked and witchified" mountains of the South: "a pretty country . . . though lame in the siring, right royally poor; and pickish in its blessings." The plot revolves around a dead woman in a junk car in the woods. That's seen from above, as a buzzard might see it, circling in; from the ground, where the story walks, it's about a young man who finds a baby and sets out to find it either a home or a mother. The baby leads him to a woman in a green bathrobe with breasts "like two heads on a single pillow" and a face that "would wean a wizard away from his wand."
In other words, this is a love story. It includes a ghost and ends with a baby; and it contains, in addition to the usual sexual misunderstandings, the promise of redemption.
A Good Baby is not what they call "an easy read" these days, and if you come to it ignorant of Rooke's other accomplishments (as this reviewer did), at first you think he's trying to write in dialect and not quite succeeding. Then the magic of his peculiar, idiosyncratic diction takes hold, and you realize that his Biblical cadences and made-up words are doing more than revealing character: they are limning a world in which past and present, and even heaven and hell, are fatally intermixed.
Raymond "burnt-out, had-a-sister, living-in-a-hole-in-the-ground" Toker lives as much in the hurts of his past as in the present; so do the old men "in doleful assembly" around the stove at Cal's Place; so does Truman, a man with "meanness writ on him as bold as a hoofprint," a man so evil he baits traps with his own rotten flesh. So does Roby of the green bathrobe, a woman whose eyes have seen horrors that have left them "as deep as tea leaves in a tea jug."
Orphans all, and looking for either love or revenge, or both. A Good Baby is the intertwined story of their several searches, and the violence of their world is so persuasive that it is the moments of tenderness found that are, ultimately, shocking. Rooke is a romantic, and his is a story of "shedding" which means something more than forgiving -- "if you can jist plow thue to the shedded hour" and find redemption in a world so defiled that not even the animals are innocent.
Only the baby, which at times seems to "glow some in the dark" and at others almost seems to fly, is bright and new. "Jiggers, a baby!" remarks one of the "Goddam twins" in this haunted and haunting novel -- "A baby will save the world!"
And so, in the end, it does. Terry Bisson is the author of four novels, including, most recently, "Voyage to the Red Planet."