SMELL By Radhika Jha; Soho Press: 320 pp., $24
Leela, the heroine of Radhika Jha's picaresque first novel, is convinced she smells. But it's the world that really stinks. Again and again, Leela--an Indian teenager forced to move from Nairobi to Paris after her father's death--gets cozy with some promising new situation only to get slapped in the face: There's her uncle's suburban apartment, where she's taken in only to discover that her cruel, fat aunt is interested only in forcing her to prepare elaborate spicy meals. When she runs off to stay with an imperious supermodel, she's treated like an exotic ornament and is eventually sent off to become the mistress of a Parisian bourgeois, a guy who, inevitably, shuts her out. Our ragamuffin--who is actually a fetching young thing with a body, apparently, like a Hindu goddess'--eventually ends up with Philippe Lavalle, an emperor of the appetites whose kingdom is his gourmet-food supermarket, a mecca for the rich and spoiled of Paris. Philippe, of course, is a sexual brute who turns abusive, cranking up the level of Leela's victimhood a few more notches. Throughout these recurring incidents of disappointment, Leela follows her nose--registering a universe of aromas, from strong complex curries to exotic perfumes to dead oysters to the musky disappointing scent of love. Despite her low success rate in sniffing out stability, Leela's survival instincts are amazingly sharp, and her story is hard to let go: Jha writes this orphan's tale with effortless immediacy, like Leela improvising one of her pungent, seductive feasts.
THE SALT OF BROKEN TEARS By Michael Meehan; Arcade: 298 pp., $24.95
Michael Meehan's first novel conjures up an Australian Dust Bowl: The atmosphere is windy, dry and hardscrabble, and the simple folk who inhabit this sparsely populated tale tend toward the monosyllabic. Into this gritty Depression-era milieu--which has as much to do with Sergio Leone as with Steinbeck--arrives a young, beautiful and mysterious woman named Eileen, borne like an outback Botticelli Venus on waves of desert heat. She blows into town like a vision, "clothed in nothing but the green cotton dress that flicked and chopped about her, a patched and faded relic of some other person's life...." Immediately, Eileen engages the curiosity--and hormones--of the locals, but she soon disappears as mysteriously as she arrived, leaving behind a bloodied dress and a nameless 16-year-old boy determined to track down Cabel Singh, the wandering Indian storyteller he believes is wrongly accused of Eileen's presumed murder. The boy's ensuing adventure north toward the forbidding Wirrengren Plain brings him into contact with a variety of human detritus: a sketchy debt adjuster, a traveling salesman named Old Sally, two Italian log cutters and their female companion, Gladness. Thanks to Meehan's indulgently lyrical prose, however, this is an exhausting journey--desultory and repetitive, reminiscent of trudging head-on into a stiff wind--and the outcome is wrapped in layers of obscurity, making the reader wonder whether the point of this exercise is to be as mirage-like as the mysterious, untraceable Eileen.
THE WORLD'S ROOM By Todd London; Steerforth Press: 272 pp., $24
As it recedes into the past, the golden age of suburbia--say the late '60s and early '70s--seems more and more like the fault line between Now and the mythologically innocent realm of Then. Nostalgia for this era of awakening revolutions has a built-in bittersweetness: It still sounds fun and free, even when it's held up, as it is increasingly, as the harbinger of all evil. For Todd London, a drama critic whose first novel has the meticulousness of a memoir, this age of Banlon, Joni Mitchell and divorce is as fascinating sociologically as it is rich in narrative. The result is this curious story of a 12-year-old named Teddy Hofmann who, upon the suicide of his older brother in 1969, decides to take his brother's name: Erich. As bizarre as this is, the new Erich is perhaps the sanest person here: The original Erich is a pre-Prozac crazy whose breakdown is rendered with a poeticism appropriate to the times; Erich's sister compulsively runs away with awful older men; Mrs. Hofmann is a self-obsessed would-be lounge singer who takes the kids on a rambling course through Mexico and Southern California; and Mr. Hofmann is a feckless Columbia prof who can't seem to muster the energy to intercede for his kids. As the new Erich grows up, we see him get obsessed with Super 8 cameras, wearing monk's robes in college and, in general, emulating eccentricities he only barely pulls off. It's as if London is saying that sanity is, in part, performance: His false and fascinating Erich manages to survive both a screwed-up family and the weirdness of the times--even if true selfhood (and the end of the '70s) can't be put off forever.