LOVERBOY By Victoria Redel; Graywolf Press: 208 pp. $21.95
‘Who is the mother that does not want to keep her child from the ruin of the normal?” It’s the same question Victoria Redel asked in many of the stories in her collection “Where the Road Bottoms Out,” and she asks it again in this, her first novel. Redel is one of the most talented scary writers to come out of musty old Manhattan in the last few decades. She’s a writer with her fists clenched so tightly that her palms must bleed, and when she opens her fists, suddenly, in front of the reader, powerful, hurtful truths come flying out. A.M. Homes can do this magic trick with language, but she greases her palms with humor. Redel is pure courage, facing squarely, almost formally, simple ferocious ideas: Mothers are evil and human; mothers are suffocating and loving; stupid bureaucrats are wrecking humanity; each person is weirdly different and fascinating; language doesn’t have to be what you say it should be. All this and story too.
A mother loves her son so much that she will not let the world devour him. She holds him too close, and we can feel him struggling to leave her from the start, as though he were inside her, trying to get out. Simple phrases like, “now I wonder” or “to this day” set up Redel’s signature ominousness. (Yes, she too makes up words.) That’s all it takes to cause fear in a reader, a jumpy reader, a reader who knows that children are almost always the fodder for this bloody machine, the world.
THE VIRGIN OF BENNINGTON By Kathleen Norris; Riverhead Books: 256 pp., $24.95
I can’t help feeling that this book has the wrong cover and title. While it begins with an opening chapter about a wide-eyed innocent among all the drugs and sex of upper-middle-class liberals (Kathleen Norris learns fast-her first love is a woman and her second is a married professor), “The Virgin of Bennington” very quickly becomes a book-length epitaph to Betty Kray, Norris’ frst employer. After Bennington, Norris moved to Manhattan to work for Kray, then executive director of the Academy of American Poets. From this perch (ever the outsider on the inside), Norris met many poets of an exciting generation (from James Wright to Adrienne Rich) and went to loft parties given by Andy Warhol’s creepy cohort. She’s so fatally earnest that it makes the project taste like a green banana, with that clinging taste that begs for maturity.
THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN By Henriette Roosenburg; The Akadine Press: 222 pp., $15.95
It’s not a question of simply admiring the human spirit demonstrated by Henriette Roosenburg and her three friends, Dutch political prisoners in their 20s who made their way home to Holland after a year (March 1944 to May 1945) in a prison in southeastern Germany. Or the humanity they showed each other, in the lowest category of prison life, nacht und nebel, or “night and fog,” referring to their complete confinement from other prisoners. They lived, six to a cell, on bread, water flavored with parsnip and tea. Roosenburg’s account of the five-week journey from Germany back to Holland, on foot (hitchhiking with Russian soldiers, who presented the unpredictable danger of rape) and by boat, is something like the children’s story “The Incredible Journey.” It is a fable of nature. You feel the life seeping back into these wasted, emaciated, exhausted friends like spring itself. You feel their joy at the landscape, at the taste of food and even the first un-numbing of sexual feeling in their starving bodies. Sap flows in this book. You marvel at the capillary action that one caring human being can create in another with simple kindness, but in the end, pure luck, like a blessing, rains down from the heavens. Step by step, risk by risk, each kindness they have shown to each other and the prisoners and refugees they meet along the way assures their safe return.
THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN By Hugh Brody; North Point Press: 362 pp., $25
Hugh Brody, born and raised in the English countryside, wants us to imagine the other side of Eden, the extreme environments, and the people, hunters and gatherers who live in them. Since the 1970s, Brody has lived among the Athabascans, the Nisga’a, and the Inuit on what he calls the “margins of Eden.” Brody enters the cultures through languages that are in danger of being lost and that reveal in their grammar and vocabularies the relationship of the people to the land. Books like this one help us question our own relationships to nature, the things we think we need and the ideas that define our cultures.
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