BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Lives of Passion, but No Lasting Happiness : FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN By Lisa Alther ; Dutton $22.95, 320 pages


Lisa Alther's "Five Minutes in Heaven" is typical of so many contemporary lesbian novels and of their problems. It's determined to give us a portrait of lesbian life as passionate and affirming, but also to avoid any possibility of happiness for its protagonist.

It's the peculiarity and paradox of many contemporary lesbian novels that no matter how much a work may focus on the redemptive powers of love, the final epiphanies must come in solitary contemplation, never in a lover's arms. Sex between women may occur on the page, especially in novels by younger lesbian writers, but love is offstage in some unwritten future beyond the final page.

Part of this problem is historical. A lot of the first lesbian literary efforts were pulp novels which, regardless of their frequent tragic endings, tended to define lesbian bliss as couplehood, often in some sort of imitation of the heterosexual model. Ever since feminism rolled along, however, it seems that lesbian novels have been trying to gain distance from that ideal. In more recent years, lesbians, like their heterosexual sisters, have often sought to interpret themselves outside of couple relationships--in more cultural or political terms, and often as a community.

This was probably best exemplified by the lesbian murder mysteries that became so popular in the 1980s. These portrayed strong, usually independent (i.e.: single) lesbians as detectives who explored ethical as well as forensic landscapes. The irony was that these were terribly pulp-like, only here the love affair was with the whole lesbian community instead of one lover. To make matters worse, with few exceptions, lesbians often seemed to have surrendered the realm of the senses to their gay male counterparts.

Certainly AIDS had a lot to do with the urgency of gay male writing in the last decade--theirs is an insistent sexuality, and their literary output has often been not just a demand for recognition but also a need to preserve memory. That need, finally, has hit lesbians, but what they record has been different: They rarely play out paradises lost, like, say Paul Monette, but damage instead. Lesbians don't have a tragic epidemic, but an epidemic of quieter, more personal tragedies. Love is important, but still rarely enough.

Alther's "Five Minutes in Heaven" is deeply influenced by all these things--the Stonewall riots are used as an early symbol of community, the specter of death is constant, sexual identities are slightly blurred, sex is a powerful key to darkness, and love is elusive and contradictory. Yet, for all that, Alther's work is remarkably conventional, and disappointing. It touches on so many things, but barely goes below skin level. It's as if she's trying to be radical and trendy, but not too much so.

Alther picks up her story when Jude, her protagonist, is a little girl madly in love with Molly. Their friendship is fortified by battles with the neighborhood bullies and a shared dream of a paradisiacal future. A slightly older male friend, Sandy, a genius and nerd, often comes in at the critical moment in their misadventures and saves them from their worst fates. Jude, who lives with her widowed father, is obsessed with her dead mother. This preoccupation grows deeper when Molly, who eventually runs off with the lead bully, dies in an auto accident. For Jude, this confirms the links between love and death, attraction and suffering, connection and impossibility. It's what will haunt her all through adulthood.

Alther writes these early years of Jude's life with much affection. She knows the South and its aristocracy and renders these tales believable and sweet, even though the kids often talk with a cynicism far beyond their supposed years.

Where the story starts falling apart is when she takes us to the New York of the late 1960s, where Jude ends up rooming with Sandy, now a young gay man with a taste for rough trade. With Stonewall as the vaguest of backgrounds, Jude consummates her affair with Sandy and--naturally--loses him almost instantly. It's so predictable, it's embarrassing.

Later, Alther hooks Jude up with a married woman who verges on S&M; but doesn't quite go over. By the time this relationship ends (go ahead, guess) it's clear the character needs a break. Alther drops her in Paris, where Jude deals with strippers, nearly anonymous sex, cross dressing and the spirits of all her dead. It's like a buffet table of possibilities, but Alther doesn't work any of them. Jude dances on the outside, not because it makes sense for her as a literary character, but because Alther hasn't imagined beyond.

This is a bit shocking because Alther, the author of "Kinflicks," "Original Sins," and "Other Women," has written stories of women's lives rich with emotion and urgency. But in "Five Minutes in Heaven," the language is flat, Paris is as generic as a tourist pamphlet, and the author seems to be struggling to imbue her tale. The effort shows way too much and, as a result, fails.

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