The Skin of the Sky

A Novel

Elena Poniatowska, translated

from the Spanish by Deanna


Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

336 pp., $25

This novel by Mexico’s grand dame of letters, Elena Poniatowska, is set in the Mexico of dreams, that source of vitality and imagination the rest of us can only steal from. Lorenzo de Tena is the illegitimate son of a peasant woman and her upper-class lover from Mexico City. He and his siblings are happy in the country, until their mother dies and they’re packed off to live with their cold and distant father. Lorenzo, propelled by rage and hatred for his father through law school, stumbles on his true love, astronomy: “He wanted to sink into the night, live for it, become part of the agreeable symmetry of the sky, and not argue at ground level, among human weakness.” Astronomy saves Lorenzo from the law; still, no woman can soften him. The injustice of his mother’s life and early death burns in him. This novel is broad and deep: Harvard to the tiny village of Tonantzintla; high society in colonial Mexico to radical politics and brave new lifestyles. Poniatowska writes large: Her characters’ journeys from bourgeois traditions to creative anarchy seem as inevitable as the arc of stars across the night sky.


Old Friends

A Novel

Stephen Dixon

Melville House: 220 pp., $22.95

Did you ever want to shake off a novel the way a retriever shakes off pond water? It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that some writers are able, in a mere 200 pages or so, to rewire your circuitry in a way that makes you unfit for your own life. Stephen Dixon is such a writer, and he can do it in a short story as well. His secret? Dixon writes so close to real life that you can almost play by his rules. His characters often live on the brink but never, miraculously, fall off -- like Irv and Leonard, both writers, in this new novel. When the novel opens, they’re in early middle age. Leonard is loveably pathetic; he hasn’t had a job since he was 15. He rarely leaves the house except to walk the dog and spends all day writing fiction that’s published, once in a while, in literary magazines. Both are the opposite of the star-studded clan that includes Norman Mailer and Martin Amis. They type in anonymity and are not above living off women, whom they are also not above (in Leonard’s case) cheating on. Leonard has a degenerative condition that works on his bowels and his mental agility; Irv marries a woman who after several years is wheelchair bound. The two geezers’ friendship continues via letters and phone calls, all recorded by Dixon. The novel has a great case of logorrhea; it could be read aloud, like a one-act play. Irv and Leonard are boring, as people are most of the time. Why, then, isn’t the novel?


Hermit in Paris

Autobiographical Writings

Italo Calvino

Vintage: 272 pp., $13 paper

It’s hard to resist Calvino. Even his nonfiction sparkles with disorienting imagination. This collection offers autobiographical bits, the latest from 1980, five years before his death. My favorite is “American Diary 1959-1960,” a record of the half-year he spent in New York and touring the country on a Ford Foundation grant. He sounds like a secret agent as he describes the U.S. publishing business for his editor back in Turin. His accounts of Los Angeles, “brash ... dull, with no pretense at having monuments or quaint features,” a city with “a lack of soul,” and San Francisco (“monotonous”) are hilarious, as are his comments on the country in general (“Very attractive women are rare”; “Italophiles are always the least intelligent”). Digs at the “weakness of American thought” are also amusing, but he saves his finest venom for the beatniks, like Allen Ginsberg, who are not as “clean” as the beatniks at home. Calvino thinks aloud on the page, which makes his politics incoherent and his observations fresh. He feels “the need to justify the fact that I write, that I impose on other people something that has come out of my head and which I am always unsure of and dissatisfied with.”