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Austin Chronicle A Midsummer's Read

JULY 27, 1998: 

Singing Into the Piano
by Ted Mooney

(Knopf, $25 hard)

One can hardly call Ted Mooney prolific, but once every 10 years or so, he manages to sneak out a novel that manages to leave its readers breathless. Singing Into the Piano is his third, and while it may not be the place to start discovering this magnificent talent, it's as good as the other two, Easy Travel to Other Planets and Traffic and Laughter. The reason is that this time, Mooney doesn't call on his trademarked hallucinatory edge, which has been both up-front (Easy Travel's tale of a woman drawn into a sexual relationship with a dolphin) and so subtle that it creeps up on you (Traffic and Laughter's dawning realization that yes, this is the post-war era, but, with South Africa about to do an atomic test, not the one we've been living in). He's writing "straighter," but nonetheless doing it with magnificent élan.

In this case, we follow two couples whose lives accidentally intersect in Manhattan one night. Santiago Diaz, a former soccer star, is running for president of Mexico, and Edith and Andrew, who have recently become lovers, attend the speech out of boredom or curiosity. Actually, Edith has come with her husband, James, an old college friend of Andrew's, but has abandoned him for Andrew's first-row seat, and in the novel's first paragraphs, Santiago is about to deliver his speech when his eye is caught by them - because Edith is giving Andrew a hand-job under the table. This causes him to toss aside his pre-planned speech and wing it, quite eloquently, and afterwards, when the audience goes to another part of the hotel for a reception, his security people find Edith's overstuffed purse and, thinking it's a bomb, throw it outside on the trash. Santiago asks that it be brought to him, and he goes about finding her.

Diaz is opposing Mexico's long-standing ruling party, and, thus, is never really safe, although everyone concerned behaves as if it's democracy as usual. His real mission in New York is winning American hearts and minds to his cause, and for this, he needs his elegant wife, Mercedes - the two are sort of a Mexican Bill and Hil - who also finds Edith and Andrew (and Andrew's 31/2-year old son Kevin from his previous marriage) irresistable. As their friendship develops, shadows creep in. Andrew's job is a probate lawyer, and his current case is fighting a contested will that leaves a considerable fortune to a young primatologist who is trying to create a reserve in the Brazilian rainforest for some endangered monkeys. It quickly becomes evident that James, who runs an art gallery, is mixed up with some shady business laundering money from Brazil through Mexico, through Marisa, a Brazilian photographer who is his lover, and whose big project is to take a picture of Andrew, Edith, Santiago, and Mercedes on the border, a project nobody is particularly enthusiastic about. And, early on, Santiago's campaign manager manages to steal all his computer files (and his computer guy) and declare his candidacy for president.

But although the plot is richly detailed, it's also almost secondary here. What's more important is the thickening texture of the relationships between the characters as they develop through a series of interactions, and the slow revelation of each one's idiosyncracies as they plunge into a trip to Mexico that will bring the plot to a masterful conclusion, although, in the end, not much is resolved. A character-driven novel with some spectacular characters, Singing Into the Piano is a book that draws you in, fascinated, as everyone concerned is pushed to the limits and, tested, comes out the other end a different person.

I'd recommend finding Mooney's two other books first (search for Easy Travel in the science fiction section: As with the other two, the title doesn't seem to have much to do with the story), but keep this one in mind. Mooney is not a blockbuster, and this is his most subtle work to date. It will charm and seduce you, and probably horrify you more than once. Its characters will live with you long after you close the book, and make you hope that Mooney doesn't take so long until the next one. -Ed Ward

by Octavia Butler

(Beacon, $13 paper)

You might think that I would have heard of Hugo and Nebula-award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer Octavia Butler by now; might at least have heard of her 1979 time-travel novel Kindred, now in its third printing, if only in passing. You'd be wrong on both counts. Let that omission, one that forces new bright life into the word "glaring," speak for itself.

While unpacking boxes in her new Los Angeles home, Dana, an African-American woman, suddenly experiences a strange dizziness and nausea. She recovers from her fugue to find herself in the antebellum South. While there, Dana acts without thought to save a drowning child, Rufus Weylin. Rufus, she later learns, is a white ancestor of hers. Dana will be forced back into the past to save him again and again until he can sire the daughter who begins Dana's ancestral maternal line. Here, Butler invokes the "grandfather clause" that most time-travel narratives depend on: If Dana refuses the imperative to save Rufus - if she lets him die - then she ceases to be. However, each foray into the past becomes increasingly dangerous to Dana's physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Kindred is as much a novel of psychological horror as it is a novel of science fiction. Dana's existence depends upon how well she can adapt herself to the role of a slave - her survival hinges upon her ability to forget her own humanity. The mutual dependence that exists between herself and Rufus impels her into a soul-twisting intimacy with her white ancestor. However, this intimacy does not save her either from witnessing or from experiencing the brutalities of slave life. Throughout, Dana is completely real, a believable character coerced into a bizarre situation. But what gives Butler's book its definitive marrow-chill is the knowledge that Butler is not writing science fiction but something more like science fact: Butler researched slave life and slave narratives meticulously for Kindred. The brutality described here has its basis in historical actuality.

In remembrance is not healing, merely a hope that pain will cease. The knowledge of her heritage promises no restoration to Dana; it is the ragged tool she uses to help herself survive - and later, as numerous and always more prolonged sojourns in Rufus Weylin's time scar her mentally and physically, it is the burden she carries. Kindred's enigmatic conclusion appears to indicate that a maimed past creates a maimed present. But a forgotten past, Butler seems to caution, maims almost as horribly by its absence. This is the beautiful, terrible paradox at the heart of Kindred. With this book, Butler has created a work of art whose individual accomplishment defies categorization. Kindred, though it may have gone largely unrecognized by the mainstream, is a book whose ambition and achievement are superlative. -Barbara Strickand

Little Kingdoms
by Steven Millhauser

(Vintage, $12 paper)

Large, delicate men working painstakingly for hours on tiny drawings? Cruel and coldhearted dwarves manipulating the trust of their Princes? Dark secrets hidden within the catalog of an art exhibit? Welcome to the small and exact world of Steven Millhauser's Little Kingdoms.

Re-released as a Vintage Contemporary, Little Kingdoms brings together three novellas by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne," "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," and "Catalogue of the Exhibition."

In the first, J. Franklin Payne is an illustrator. He spends eight hours every day drawing and writing comic strips and editorial cartoons for a daily paper. He has a wife. He has a daughter. They live in a nice, country home, complete with tower study, green grass, red and yellow flowers, and a small lake for picnics and canoeing. They have small parties. He has a best friend, Max. Payne holds fond memories of his father's dark-room, the photographs, the chemicals, the smells, and of time spent as a young man drawing caricatures at a penny arcade. And he has his cartoons. Animated cartoons. Hand-drawn, every detail, day after day, working long into the night and early morning, locked in his tower-study, hunched over small squares of rice paper, bringing to life the fantasies of his childhood as the realities of his adulthood collapse before his very eyes.

The second is a fairy tale. A castle. A handsome prince of unsurpassing nobility. His beautiful princess of unsurpassing fidelity. A strong, dark stranger - honorable and courageous to a fault. A small and conniving and powerful dwarf, and the dungeon. Jealousy, betrayal, true love, torture. This is not a bedtime story. This is, if anything, tragedy. There are no happy endings, or maybe, nothing ever ends.

And the third, "Catalog of the Exhibition," chronicles the life of Edward Moorash, 19th century artist. Both satiric and gothic, his art mirrors the self-deprecating tragedy of his life. He lives with his sister in the countryside and paints in the barn or in the attic, portraits in which there are no discernible features, landscapes shrouded in deep fog, interpretations of grim fairy tales and musical masterpieces, all painted in such strict departure from classical painting techniques, he is hailed as both genius and fool. And as we learn of his paintings, of his growth as an artist, we see him deteriorate as a man - his health, his sanity - until the tragic, and somewhat surprising, end.

These pieces capture well the imagination. The structure of the stories are novel and endearing, but for a writer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at that, Millhauser is not so good with words. His prose is at times clear and smooth, but for the most part, his style is clumsy and over-weight. He writes as if he is uncomfortable with words or doesn't seem to understand their ebb and flow. He lacks rhythm. The stories are riveting, but he lacks style, and if style is the music of prose, Little Kingdoms doesn't sing. - Manuel Gonzales

The Men of Brewster Place
by Gloria Naylor

(Hyperion, $22.95 hard)

"My name is Ben. I'm a drunk. And been waiting a long time to say these next few words: This street gave birth to more than its girl children, ya know." With this declaration, Gloria Naylor returns to Brewster Place, the urban tenement she captured so fiercely in her acclaimed first novel The Women of Brewster Place and now once again in The Men of Brewster Place. Women told the somber story of a dying neighborhood through the voices of some unforgettable women: Mattie Michael, Etta Mae Johnson, and, Kiswana Browne, among others.

Fifteen years later and on the heels of a critical cool-down, Naylor comes back to the block to visit its voices once again, although this time they're deeper-pitched and spoken through stubbled lips. Once again we see the dreams deferred on Brewster Place, the struggle, strength, and despair bred in its dark hallways, the tight community formed on its front stoops; we see the same hard luck, determination, and will to survive that characterized the women of Brewster Place, the same flaws and flights and courage; in short, we see the same world we saw in The Women of Brewster Place - but this time through it is not as urgent, not as demanding, not as real.

The men in Women were always leaving: Brutal, thoughtless, selfish, and vain, they were also damningly real. In Men, Naylor takes some of those same no-'count bastards - Basil Michael, Moreland T. Woods, C.C. Baker, Eugene - and gives them a chance to give account, but their stories fall flat compared to those of Naylor's women. Basil's story is schmaltzy and wooden; Eugene's tale mines most of its emotional impact from a story told in Women; Moreland T. Woods is his old greasy self, but somehow not as nefarious. More successful is Naylor's vivid portrait of C.C. Baker, perhaps the most brutal and faceless of Women's men. But try as it might, this brief novel can lay only scant claim to the souls of its men; ultimately it lacks the emotional and narrative depth of its predecessor.

The Women of Brewster Place didn't need men, as a novel. That was part of its power. Men feels like a sequel, an afterthought, written with nowhere near the same potency and grace Naylor managed for Women. If you haven't read Women, do so now. But unless you're just deadly curious to know what happened to Moreland, C.C., Eugene, and the bunch, leave the Men on the shelf. -Jay Hardwig

Man or Mango?
by Lucy Ellman

(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $22 hard)

Bees have an agenda, bees have a natural order, bees make sense. By peppering the text of her third novel Man or Mango? with lists and snippets from scientific, historical, and, literary writings (bee information in particular is threaded throughout), Lucy Ellman shows the randomness and messiness of human interactions, or the sad lack thereof.

Eloise, George, Ed, and Owen: These characters are as quirky as they come. Respectively, they are an oversexed hermit, a histrionic poet, a pervert/bomber/power pee'er and horticulturalist of size, and a worrier. These four, along with a few other stragglers, struggle through the bulk of the book alone, acutely aware of tiny details, sharply in tune with doom, drowning in their own emotions, and ever-suspicious of any joy that crops up in life.

Each chapter is named for one of the characters, and Eloise and George have the most. The novel takes place mostly in Britain, but Eloise met George, an American baker/poet, when she won a trip to the States from a vacuum cleaner company. The author pokes fun at George's poetry throughout because he's writing an epic about ice hockey - "Broodin' on the Boston Bruins/ (Brave old team, now in ruins) - but she herself is a true poet, as proven by Eloise's recollection of her first meeting of George. "Customers came and went, merely mindful of their daily bread, while he filled my mouth with salted snakes and snails, sugared shells and stars," Eloise recalls.

In another passage, one of George's poetry students sums up the book's love story in beautiful prose. "A wasp, desperate for something wet and sweet, clings boldly to a mango moving swiftly through space. ... The wasp ... is acutely aware only of her separation from her own nest and has fastened herself for what seems to her an eternity to that drying drip of juice on the mango's side." Eloise is the wasp who loves a mango, a sensual treat with no more feeling than a piece of fruit, too much. She loved her mother the same way. But wasps don't expect as much from their love objects as we expect from our men and our mothers.

Eloise is angry, scared, and self-loathing throughout, but the final portion of the book brings everyone together in a last, grand display of randomness that proves life may not be so aimless as we're starting to think.

In this, Ellman has achieved a great circularity; a book that starts with a confusing unravelling of facts and seemingly unrelated events makes the reader cringe, laugh, cringe a whole lot more, and think: about the holocaust, the environment, and the state of love in our lives. Lucy Ellman is a bright and shining talent (previous winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize) who has found a vehicle, through her writing, to work out her own demons. She may be sad, but more than that, she's smart. - Meredith Phillips

Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland: Dispatches From White Africa
by Graham Boynton
(Random House, $24 hard)

"'Anyone who thinks that the ANC is going to run the government in South Africa,' Margaret Thatcher pronounced firmly in 1987, 'is living in Cloud Cuckooland.' Seven years later, on Sunday, April 24, 1994, I was bivouacked in Johannesburg, the heart of Cloud Cuckooland, watching the clock run down on white rule."

So writes journalist and Rhodesian expat Graham Boynton in his book Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland: Dispatches From White Africa. The April 24 Boynton writes of was just days before the elections that would sweep the African National Congress into power in South Africa, thus completing the erosion of white rule in sub-Saharan Africa that began with the Belgian withdrawal from the Congo in 1960. Boynton follows white Africa through these changes - from colonial outpost to postcolonial chaos in less than three decades - commenting on the quick and sometimes violent cultural upheaval that has accompanied them. Boynton starts with images of the white heyday on the continent, describing a level of comfort wrenched from the continent through untold suppression, exploitation of the land, and the importation of a genteel European civic vision. Thirty years later, he finds a continent "riven with civil wars, paralyzed by corruption, stricken with famines, and economically on the way to the knacker's yard." "Whatever the moral imperatives of Africa's emancipation," Boynton concludes, "the realities of the liberation era seemed to suggest that Africa was unable to govern itself. ... No matter what the shortcomings of colonial rule, black rule had been even worse for the ordinary African."

Why this happened is a subject that could fill a small library (Boynton himself points to the abruptness of political and social change), but Cloud Cuckooland focuses upon the reactions of white Africans to these changes. He combines a sometimes obscure historical narrative with a series of discrete and compelling stories of displaced whites in black South Africa: Piet Grundlingh and Charmaine Phillips' serial violence; former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith's crusty irrelevance; Alwyn Wolfaardt's tragic Boer patriotism, his own ambivalent response to an Africa he can no longer call his own. "You see," a leathered barfly remarks in a particularly telling aside, "when the blacks took over the country, we were narrowminded and we thought they'd fuck it up. Now we are much more broad-minded, and we know they're fucking it up." It is these stories - full of wistful despair and a keen sense of human shortcoming - that are the emotional heart of Cloud Cuckooland. That Boynton can tell them without appearing either partial or sanctimonious is a credit to his sensitivity of approach - a sensitivity that doubtless evolves from his own history as a white African in a time of black empowerment.

Boynton writes with a developed narrative sense and an eye for meaningful description; Cloud Cuckooland is a thoughtful and engaging book about a time and place as complex and chaotic as it is, as Boynton takes pains to remind us, beautiful. -Jay Hardwig

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