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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Dorothy Cole and Kelle Schillaci

FEBRUARY 1, 1999: 

Mosquito by Gayl Jones (Beacon Press, cloth, $28.50)

Gayl Jones is a Ph.D. and former college English teacher. She makes two big mistakes in this book. The first is writing about Texas and New Mexico as if they were suburbs of Los Angeles or Ann Arbor, Mich. The second is relying on a narrator who is too boring to be worth keeping up with.

Sojourner Jane Nadine Johnson, known as Mosquito, is loquacious without being articulate. It's as if her creator never decided whether this independent truck driver was an educated woman with hidden intellectual brilliance prompted by life experience or a well-read and erudite individual masquerading as "just folks."

Most of the secondary characters (and there are tons of them!) are interesting and well-drawn. They flit in and out of the story like bright bubbles in a big boiling pot of oatmeal. It is when Jones lets herself go that she trips herself up: She sacrifices Mosquito by requiring her to play too many roles and stand for too many different points of view. I won't say much about Delgadina, the paper cutout of a Chicana who exists only to voice stilted political views. Apparently Jones' only Tejano acquaintances have been at the university level; I've never met a regular Spanish-speaking south Texan who was comfortable being called a Chicano. In most parts of the Southwest the word conjures up uneducated Californians or condescending professors.

What makes it so frustrating is that there is some great material here. Jones is sensitive to the pitfalls of group thinking and the typecasting of individuals, and the love story between Mosquito and Father Ray teeters on the verge of being compelling. But ultimately this book suffers from a lack of editing. It could have been half as long and made its points, drawn its characters and told its story twice as well.

Gayl Jones is a good writer, and the saga of her own conflicts with the power structure and tragic love choices is a story in itself. This is a woman whose husband slit his own throat during a police stand-off last February in Lexington, Ky. She deserves to be listened to, but readers demand more than the entire contents of a writer's notebook. This book is a rambling monster. Like a gymnast trapped inside a fat lady, there are acute observations and vivid characters hidden here. Alas! The lady has fallen, and she is too bloated to rise. (DC)

Space by Jesse Lee Kercheval (Berkley Books, paper, $12.95)

I wish I were a kid back when the moon was just a big fat mystery in the sky, untouched by human feet. Back in the days when teenaged girls hung autographed pictures of President Kennedy on their bedroom mirrors. Those were the days. Unless, of course, your mom was doped up on Valium, you broke your back falling from a tree and you had to use those giant sanitary napkin contraptions with belts and straps. I guess it doesn't matter where or when you spend your formative years, there's a whole lot of crap to deal with. I like memoirs, as a rule. They're kind of voyeuristic. Space fails a bit in achieving the kind of vulnerable honesty some memoirs so bravely capture, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

The story starts in the sticky interior of the family car with the Kercheval clan transplanting themselves from Maryland to Cocoa Beach, Fla.--a move Mom is less than pleased about. Kercheval does a fantastic job of contrasting the two young sisters, following their lives into adulthood. Carol, the oldest, is cast into the role of early adult, gradually sacrificing her childhood years as it becomes evident that their mom is incapable of sustaining her parental role. It's Carol who struggles to maintain the illusion of "family," ordering the irreverant Jesse to be home on time, keep her shoes on and stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, Dad's off working his new job, and Mom's sinking deeper into anger and resentment over being cast in a role of motherhood she'd never planned or intended.

Space is your basic coming-of-age piece, where the precocious mini-Jesse Kercheval approaches each seemingly monumental formative event in unnervingly calm stride. Basically, unless you have the kind of celebrity status the general public craves, memoirs have to tell a good, compelling story. Kercheval captures the feeling of childhood with a subjective degree of adult perspective. When she gives in to sentimentality, she just as quickly rears back into a safer realm of detachment that can only come through maturation. The space metaphor got a bit heavy-handed at times, but Kercheval ultimately tells an honest, beautifully written story about growing up. If you're into that kind of thing, then there you go. (KS)

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