The Revolution of Every Day
Tin House: 392 pp., $15.95 paper
Much has been written recently about the impossibility of a middle-class existence in New York. Cari Luna sets her sights on an even more beleaguered socio-economic group with her excellent debut novel, "The Revolution of Every Day," which looks at squatter culture in the mid-'90s, when a tenement house in Manhattan's East Village could be seized by idealistic rebels.
At Thirteen House, one of a clique of interconnected squats, a young runaway named Amelia is pregnant, but not by Gerrit, her Dutch boyfriend with a savior complex (he helped her kick heroin). The baby's father is Steve, the charismatic leader of Thirteen House who's been long married to Anne, a suburban girl now in her mid-30s who's growing tired of living as a shadow figure with no career or family, all of her energies poured into her political stance. Luna finely conveys the tenuous position of the squatters in the fiercely capitalist habitat of New York. The squatters bring in a lawyer to battle the city's emergency evacuation order against them, but the might of Rudy Giuliani's forces bear down regardless. Using a strong and simple hand, Luna braids together the larger fight against the city's battering rams with the building's interpersonal dynamics. Her characters are deeply sympathetic and richly drawn, portrayed as struggling New Yorkers first, political outliers second.
Brother and the Dancer
Heyday: 280 pp., $25
Hollywood has been portrayed, not to mention parodied and mythologized, in a number of novels, but the same can't be said of the Inland Empire. The humble sprawl in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains is the deeply felt and explored setting of "Brother and the Dancer," Keenan Norris' promising but uneven debut that won the James D. Houston Award.
Erycha Evans and Touissant Freeman are two African American kids growing up in Highland, but class and money keep them apart at nearly every turn — save for a flirty, lie-riddled encounter at a college orientation in 2001, one of the novel's best scenes. Otherwise, the book follows them on opposite adventures: Erycha takes up with a drug dealer when she's 15, looking for a way to escape her parents' relentless fighting, and Touissant impresses the football team, which nicknames him Tupac, until he crosses a sacrosanct border ostensibly based on team rivalry. Norris' sense of character is compelling, especially when it comes to Erycha and her obsession with dance, but the novel stalls at times, searching for more of a plot.
A Love Story
Little A/New Harvest: 128 pp., $20
Rebecca Walker has made her name as one of the most prominent writers on third-wave feminism and racial identity, but "Adé" marks the first time she's published a novel. Her slim debut — more a novella at 128 pages — packs in pleasures and problems. A skillfully direct memoirist in her landmark 2001 work, "Black, White and Jewish," Walker trades in that frankness for layers of romantic atmosphere. "Adé" follows an unnamed Yale University girl on the kind of globe-trot familiar to all privileged American kids but carried out with a little more verve than usual. The narrator and her lesbian fling Miriam head for Africa, wandering around Egypt and eventually Lamu, a Kenyan island with a long-established Swahili population. Immediately, the narrator, who like Walker is biracial with a Jewish father and an African American mother, feels at home, though she questions such an easy feeling: "I did not believe in the notion of a return to the homeland — such an Africa was gone, I knew that, and yet... I felt a familiarity in my marrow."
While Miriam flees for more tourist-friendly destinations, the narrator falls in love with Adé, a Swahili Muslim who names her Farida. Between lovely descriptions of the island's sun-dazed beauty and Farida's all-consuming infatuation, Walker salts in acute realizations of how place and romantic attachment can instill a sense of belonging while simultaneously complicating notions of identity. But too many opportunities — Farida mentions "the way I veiled and covered for you" — aren't properly explored here. By the end, when Farida is battling malaria, meningitis and the corrupt Kenyan government, all thwarting her plan to marry Adé, the novella reads as abbreviation, skimming over Farida's resignation and disappointment.