BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Finding Both Pain and Peace in Fire : CURED BY FIRE; A Novel by Tim McLaurin , G.P. Putnam's Sons $21.95, 240 pages


Novels are typically placed in one of two camps--the commercial, from which the reader expects entertainment, and the literary, from which one expects illumination. The best novels break all the rules, of course, being simultaneously wise and funny, engrossing as well as enlightening, and inspire many writers to transcend the usual pigeonholes.

And there, alas, is the rub, for nine times out of 10, a novel that attempts to be both commercial and literary will fail by the standards of either category. Aspiring to create a new kind of animal, the author usually ends up with something neither fish nor fowl, a scaly bird of uncertain pedigree.

Tim McLaurin, author of the novels "The Acorn Plan" and "Woodrow's Trumpet" and the memoir "Keeper of the Moon," has created such a hybrid in "Cured by Fire." The book reads well page by page, but its plotting is schematic and not entirely convincing, its moral discourse pushing the story along as much as the characters themselves. You can easily imagine "Cured by Fire" as a B-grade, made-for-TV movie.

Lewis Calhoon is the more stereotypical contractor. A poor farm boy, son of a drunk who believed that "crying makes you weak," Lewis has a chip on his shoulder that prevents him from asking for help under any circumstances.

His independence serves him well, until his beautiful, upper-middle-class wife, Beverly, begins to feel isolated in their marriage, pointing out that Lewis won't share her religious life and seems incapable of saying the word love . Lewis, thinking of the home he's planned, asks himself, "Weren't bricks and concrete and wood more enduring than words?" but the thought remains forever unspoken.

One day, after bagging a record-setting buck and celebrating with a few unaccustomed whiskeys, Lewis returns home only to knock over his rifle and fatally shoot his wife in the chest. Lewis loses the will to live, and is soon disfigured in a fire he starts in an alcoholic haze.

Elbridge Snipes' tale would be more tragic than Lewis' were it not for his religious faith. Born of a black father and a Pawnee mother but raised by his grandfather, Elbridge never dreamed of upward mobility; an outcast, all he hoped for was a small patch of farmland and a chance to catch the limit during dove-hunting season.

For a time the goal seemed attainable, when Elbridge found the Bible, married, and worked on a considerate farmer's tobacco plantation. It ended, however, when a tobacco barn caught fire; the farmer filed for bankruptcy, Elbridge was let go, and his wife, Rita, turned to sweet wine. Some time after that, following an argument, Rita locked herself in a room with the couple's two girls, and when Elbridge awoke in his bed a few hours later the house was in flames. He alone survives the fire, but barely, his lungs ravaged by smoke during his attempts to save his wife and daughters.

Lewis aimlessly heads to Seattle after the death of his wife and becomes a surly, solitary panhandler; Elbridge, by contrast, arrives there following a vision, and ends up a minor street preacher.

Elbridge, seeing Lewis' fire-scarred face, senses a connection with his fellow Southerner, but Lewis refuses to have anything to do with him, finding solace only in drink and the hope of easy death. But Elbridge, slowly dying, refuses to leave Lewis alone, and when they are hospitalized together Lewis begins to admire Elbridge's courage in the face of enormous personal loss--and to reflect on the fact that he, unlike Elbridge, still has a child, that he can still pick up the pieces of his life.

As a teen-ager Lewis worked for a tobacco farmer who told him, "Fire's a funny thing, ain't it, boy? It'll cure tobacco or scorch it up in the field. It'll cook your food or burn your house down." At the close of the novel Lewis is himself "cured by fire," his encounter with Elbridge giving his personal tragedy resonance, allowing him at last to feel some of the feelings and gain some of the faith that came more easily to Elbridge.

It's a relatively happy ending, for Lewis at least, but less so for the reader, because what McLaurin has produced is more an extended parable than a fully developed novel. Its symmetry and heavy-handed message undercut the credibility of McLaurin's characters to the point that it's hard to read the novel without feeling that McLaurin, like the typical commercial novelist, is interested less in Lewis and Elbridge than in selling a point of view.

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