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Speaking in the Tongues of Angeles : EL NINO <i> by Douglas Anne Munson (Viking: $18.95; 244 pp.; 0-670-83134-4) </i>

<i> Kate Braverman is the author of "Palm Latitudes" and "Lithium For Medea." Her short</i> -<i> story collection, "Squandering the Blue," will be published by Ballantine in the fall. </i>

We recognize Los Angeles as El Norte, the city of dreams for Latin Americans. But as we hurtle toward the millennium, another story is emerging. It is about Anglos who come to these psychic and aesthetic colonies and go native. People from other regions who speak Spanish, buy potions at botanicas , study the Mayan myths and take lovers from south of the border. This is a city of primal juxtapositions where the past and the future seem to overlap once you decipher the symbols in the murals and on faces at bus stops. These are not ordinary colors.

El nino means “boy” in Spanish. It also is an abnormal pattern of strange heat. From its inception, this ambitious first novel stakes a claim to symbolic levels. And “El Nino” proves to be about what all art is, namely journeys, temptation, struggle and the possibility of redemption.

“El Nino” is set in contemporary Los Angeles. This is what the world looks like after the apocalypse, when all the known structures and methods for inducing solace have dissolved.

Douglas Anne Munson’s protagonist is a 34-year-old attorney named Sandy Walker. She’s a disintegrating alcoholic who specializes in defending parents who have sexually or physically abused their children. This is a landscape where the family and the rules that govern it have failed.

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Sandy Walker’s Los Angeles is a place where “the law was only a fragile permutation of the indelible history recorded in the primitive reptile part of the brain.” In this Los Angeles, the threads of what defines human conduct and relationships have broken absolutely. In this world, children are used by bigger people.

Munson describes an incestuous seduction this way: “Time in the various heavens stood still. It was nine steps to hell. He stood above her bed and he knew there was no turning back. The girl lay silent. She imagined she was in the land of the fleshless. Her hair became long grass. She felt his hands lift her nightgown. This is the mythology of ordinary lives.”

This novel is best when it concerns itself with these lives. When Munson turns her focus elsewhere, she is not as successful. That is when this novel loses itself and seems to want to become a TV series. Munson has given Sandy Walker generic lawyer buddies who engage in sophomoric repartee. The book is sometimes lost in events that would be cliches in cinema (a client on a roof threatening to jump; a little girl run over by a car) and are unbearable in novels. The Latin men in Walker’s life are better drawn and seem distinct. The Chicano cop is well handled and Jesus Valaria, the innocent man, seems particularly inspired.

Munson is best when she simply lets herself transmute the language of the Los Angeles streets into poetry. She has a fine sense of the moment. She describes a man slipping off his shirt, “revealing a tattoo of some intricate design and meaning that told the story of his life.” Munson’s thumbnail sketches are authentic and vivid. In this Los Angeles, “fights take place in laundromats, outside corner groceries, during hot afternoons in the middle of July on streets with cool placid names like Acacia, Cotton, Myrtlewood.”

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The vignettes that serve as unifying motifs for this book are bold and heartfelt. Of one of Walker’s clients, Munson writes: “Reina Rosas was a pragmatic saint, face painted with cheap tropical colors, a promise of redemption curled in smoky geranium lips. She had arteries like Sunset Boulevard, tattooed like La Maravilla project walls. A tear was painted under her left eye. She wept tamarindo and guayabo. She worked at Third and Vermont in an herb shop filled with tiny green bottles of good-luck oil and plastic crucifixes blending mango clouds with the essence of the promiscuous eucalyptus in rituals for women with bruised hips and broken faith. . . . She said the devil lived in the color red. Reina Rosas expected the sacrament and they gave her Thorazine.”

When “El Nino” loses, it loses. When it wins, it wins big-time. Munson asks primal questions and cooly answers a few of them. She evokes myth, archetypes and anthropology. She takes us on a journey to the side where the line between victim and perpetrator is lost somewhere in a contagion of betrayal, in a ragged sequence of nuances out of order, in a cluster of squalid boulevards and tenements racked by the moon in jasmine.

It would be easy to dismiss this novel because the subject matter is so stark and awful. But at its best, “El Nino” burns with radiance and intensity. It speaks in tongues as all visionary art does. That it is sometimes overwrought goes with the lyric territory. This novel refuses conventional borders and strategies. It doesn’t compromise.


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