Erotic Rage

William Styron's daughter Alexandra debuts with All the Finest Girls (Little, Brown, $23.95), a hauntingly grim, angry novel about a seriously dysfunctional, "love handicapped" family. Her narrator, Adelaide Abraham, is the withdrawn, difficult only child of a well-to-do bit-part actress and a bitter essayist. During a parental squabble witnessed by young Addy from under the piano, her father poses a pointed question that undoubtedly resonates for Alexandra Styron: "Do you think it's possible to be a great artist as the progeny of one?"

But Styron's main concerns here are love and mattering to someone. Adelaide is prone to act out her misery in various self-destructive ways, such as biting and cutting herself. Her psychological demons often assume the form of an imaginary attack cat. She is saved, for a time, by Louise Alfred, a woman hired to care for her. "Lou looked beneath that tangled disaster of a little girl and found someone loveable," Adelaide reminds herself 20 years later, when she travels to the Caribbean island of St. Clair to attend her old caregiver's funeral. There she meets the two sons Lou left behind when she came stateside to care for Addy -- the younger of whom still resents her. She also learns the sad, complicated love story that caused Lou to flee north.

Styron skillfully alternates scenes from Addy's distraught childhood with equally searing scenes in St. Clair, where she feels as alienated, off-balance and "inessential" as ever. The island patois is challenging for the reader to decode, but vivid images abound, including a boy who licks his lips to create "a broad doughnut of skin," and rain on a tin roof "like marbles on a can."

All the Finest Girls is filled with a rage "nearly erotic in its intensity," but when the vitriol gives way to distilled feeling, the result is extremely moving and powerful.

River of Hubris

It's terrible when a book's title broadcasts its own failure. Lisa Michaels, author of the memoir Split: A Counterculture Childhood, has written a first novel, Grand Ambition (Norton, $23.95), based on what seems a failsafe subject: the true story of newlyweds who set out to run the rapids of the Grand Canyon in a homemade boat in 1928, a year after Lindbergh's daredevil transatlantic flight. Glen and Bessie Hyde were out to break records and win notoriety to rescue themselves from a humdrum existence on his Idaho ranch. They disappeared a month into their trip.

The trouble is that as Michaels tells the Hydes' story, it's flatter than the Great Plains. Her language, even when describing some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, is monochrome and pedestrian. Her stilted dialogue suffers from terminal quaintness. She does a creditable job of conveying Bessie's steadily mounting terror in the face of frigid, boulder-strewn whitewater, as well as imagining a past for her that includes a misguided shotgun wedding. But Michaels's imagination runs drier than the desert in depicting Glen, who comes across as a cardboard cutout thrill-seeker tainted by fatal hubris. Even chapters about the search for the missing couple narrated by Glen's father fail to add a much-needed extra dimension because they are so lacking in subtlety.

The elements of a good story are all here, including the obsessive impulse toward pushing the envelope. But how does one dodge clunkers such as "And if she faced an adversary, it was within -- the fear that lay in her stomach like a cold cinder"? It's impossible not to snag on such writing, which is scattered throughout the book like those insurmountable boulders in the river.

The Perfect Schooner

Fans of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Mark Kurlansky's Cod, both nonfictional, might want to follow up with Michelle Chalfoun's potent novel on the plight of North Atlantic fishermen (or "fishers," as she calls them). Although fiction, The Width of the Sea (Cliff Street/HarperCollins, $25) teems with documentary detail that rings truer than parts of Junger's story.

Chalfoun, the author of Roustabout, soon to be a movie, writes about the tough worlds she knows firsthand. She has worked as a circus roustabout, deckhand and galley cook, and in shipyard maintenance and repair. Although she occasionally errs on the side of thoroughness, her ear is pitch-perfect, as is her nose for the nuances of relationships. The Width of the Sea is set in a fictional New England town coping with changes brought about by depleted seas and gentrification.

The biological decline leads to increasingly onerous restrictions on the squeezed fishermen. Finally, the government offers an emergency buyout, urging fishermen to cash in their boats and seek alternate employment. Meanwhile, the fishing village is being restored as a quaint tourist spot. One project is the reconstruction of an antique schooner, the Shardon Rose.

Chalfoun tracks both the schooner's restoration and the progress of a fishing vessel called the Pearl with the scrutiny of a captain studying charts. She creates a tight, entirely convincing circle of interrelated people, including the Pearl's owner, Warren Fitz, his son John, and John's best friend, Chris, the brother of John's long-suffering girlfriend.

When not at sea, half the town practically lives in the lone saloon, where Chris's wife tends bar. Chris's poison is more dangerous; a longtime but functional cocaine addict, he convinces the Fitzes that dope-running will save their boat. His misguided scheme leads to jaw-dropping trouble that verges on the comical.

The Width of the Sea is fiction with a social conscience. It tackles important issues with sympathy, passion and skill.

From One Ocean to Another

Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah's By the Sea (New Press, $22.95) comes into focus slowly, like a ship tacking across the ocean, to deliver a powerful story of family feuds and imprisonment set against a backdrop of corrupt postcolonial repression.

Gurnah's narrator, Saleh Omar, an intelligent, pensive former furniture purveyor, is a sexagenarian refugee from seaside Zanzibar seeking asylum in England. He arrives at Gatwick Airport with little besides a cherished mahogany box containing a rare incense -- which is quickly confiscated. As a form of self-protection, Omar at first pretends ignorance of English. Yet he feels a compulsion "to give an accounting of the minor dramas I have witnessed," although he adds that "even as I recount them to myself, I can hear echoes of what I am suppressing."

The pieces of his narrative start to fall in place after he is settled with the help of a sympathetic British refugee worker in a small town by the sea. He meets his compatriot Latif Mahmud, a poet and professor who left his disintegrating family some 30 years before. In unraveling their intertwined pasts, they learn that each man's family is responsible for the other's troubles. By the Sea builds to a page-turning crescendo as Omar finally reveals how he lost his house, his business, his wife and child, and his freedom.

Gurnah, whose last novel, Paradise, was shortlisted for both the Booker and Whitbread prizes, has created a remarkable voice, at once modest, dignified and sage. Omar's sinuous, atmospheric narrative bespeaks a man made wise rather than embittered by his hardships. His brief switch to Mahmud's point of view is a rare misstep in this deeply affecting novel about greed, grudges and the pricelessness of freedom.

Short Bulletins From an Absurd World

It's an occupational hazard that seems to afflict European wunderkinder more than their American counterparts these days: writing while under the influence of J.D. Salinger. Last year, we had Brian Lebert's German bestseller Crazy, and now we have Arnon Grunberg's second novel, Silent Extras (St. Martin's, $23.95), translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

Grunberg, whose first novel, Blue Mondays, was a major hit in Holland, follows with a frequently entertaining picaresque about three hapless buddies determined to make their mark on an indifferent world. The trouble is, his trio of free-spirited would-be actors not only aren't talented enough to gain celebrity; they also aren't quite charming enough to carry this absurdist comedy.

The narrator is 19-year-old Ewald Stanislas Krieg, who tells the story of the antic period when he tried to become an actor, encouraged by his oddball friend Broccoli, ne{acute} Michael Eckstein, who financed their dissolute existence of auditions and cafe-hopping in Amsterdam by drawing on his absentee parents' bank accounts. The third member of their trio was sexy Argentine Elvira Lopez, who sought a man with a motorbike but in the meantime filled in with whoever was around -- including Ewald and Broccoli.

Grunberg's style consists of deadpan short bulletins and frequent repetitions. Interspersed are Ewald's attempts to figure out this absurd world we live in, such as "Nodding amiably is often the best you can do" and "She didn't listen to anyone, only to herself. That's one way to get through life." Many of these wry observations are funny.

In a horrifying way, so are some of the sinister slapstick scenes, including picking up a prostitute for Broccoli's drunken father. But the charm wears thin long before Ewald's chums run off to find fame in America, leaving him to follow. *

Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic and reviewer.