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DICOVERIES

The plot: “When he thought of Merry’s face . . . he felt a fathomless sorrow, not for Merriweather Snipes but a larger sorrow that threaded through history like a million violins.” The landscape: “Leaf shadows dazzled the sunlit grass like nervous fish.” “The white, misted winter air, still, slumped into the valley bottom. Hoarfrost grew like white kudzu on the fence posts, fence wires, and willows.” “What is there . . . is a lushness of small bright things: hardy, civil grasses; humble yellow and dove gray and blue mosslike plants . . . little fairy rings of blue pebbles that memorize where a willing flower thrived and died and prove there isn’t rain enough to scramble them back from symmetry.” A relationship: “They let the black rose flower between them.”

Books have attributes as people do, beautiful hair or nice arms and warty places, too. James Galvin’s strength (he is a poet first) is obviously language, and I don’t mean action verbs. Sure the plot of this novel matters, but not that much. There’s evil in the ruination of the West by developers; there’s the beauty of the landscape. The whole enterprise is full of integrity. Look, there’s just no need to say any more about “Fencing the Sky.” I would never, in a million years, be able to write anything like it.

THE ELEVENTH DRAFT, Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Edited by Frank Conroy; HarperCollins: 240 pp., $23

Bracing, these anthologies on how to write--the altar upon which we hurl ourselves, sobbing, with our pathetic questions, like “What time of day do you write?” The voices are always kind and calm. Don’t worry, my child, they say, it’s all in the details; don’t worry, I was poor once and gave up everything to write; don’t worry, the entire publication process is flukey as hell, leaving only one reason to spend an unhealthy number of hours alone: Because You Must! Or, as T.C. Boyle puts it in his essay for “The Eleventh Draft,” "[Y]ou’ve got a jones, haven’t you?” There’s lofty Doris Grumbach, who, 60 years ago, delivered her first manuscript to the receptionist at Doubleday and got the good news two weeks later. There’s zippy Barry Hannah, who admits that he once wanted badly to be an existentialist, “but mainly for the beret, turtleneck, cigarettes, and wan chick across the table listening.” There’s Geoffrey Wolff, who growls about the silliness of writer’s workshops, in particular Breadloaf. There’s Elizabeth McCracken, who admits she can’t get around herself long enough even to write her own memoir, and there’s Chris Offut, proud to be a writer, saying, “The more I worked, the more I understood that a writer never really stops writing.”

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FIREBIRD A Memoir By Mark Doty; HarperCollins: 256 pp., $25

What is normal? What is a normal childhood? How should you respond if your child is a homosexual? Great debates rage about whether homosexuality is genetic or learned, and Mark Doty, in “Firebird,” a simple act of remembering, gives us a little of both. From as long as he could remember, he preferred boys. Unknowingly, Doty’s parents encouraged him in that direction. His father was pathologically distant, his mother was fascinating and lively but not emotionally dependable. Nonetheless, they appeared horrified when confronted with his gayness--his mother actually raised and pointed a gun at him but couldn’t detach the safety. “There’s a particular hold love has over you,” Doty writes with the characteristic Zen-calm you find also in his gorgeous poetry, “when you’re afraid of who you love.” It’s all about a child looking for a safe harbor, trying to please unhappy parents, brain and heart and hormones racing ahead of his peers. Finally, we get a glimmer of Doty breaking out of his airless ‘50s childhood into a new life, a home on the Cape, a lover. “I believe,” he writes with an immediacy lacking in how-to-write anthologies, “that art saved my life.”

WELDING WITH CHILDREN Stories By Tim Gautreaux; Picador: 224 pp., $22

Words don’t flip and bend for Tim Gautreaux the way they do for James Galvin, but dialogue and scene dance the wild mamba in “Welding With Children.” In the title story, an aging welder named Bruton with four no-account, burger-flipping daughters, determines that he will do right for his grandchildren what he blew with his own. When the daughters bring their babies over for him to baby-sit, he is appalled to hear them cussing and watching junk on TV and quoting their mothers. He starts to read them Bible stories; he cleans up his yard to make room for swings. He begins to make it right. There’s a spectrum of demented angels like Bruton in these stories--Mrs. Landreneaux with her Louisiana vernacular who tells the loser trying to rob her in her own kitchen that he can kill her, “but you can’t eat me.” There’s the spinster-like writing teacher in “The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference.” “Nothing will shoot a novel in the forehead like a vomity clot of useless description on the first page,” she tells her audience and her special victim, a priest doomed never to write the book that burns within him. “If you believe for a minute that a reader wants to be lulled,” she tells a panelist, “you should cut back on your estrogen supplement.” Ahh, the writing life, ain’t it romantic?

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