James Brown

Edith Reardon, looking back at her childhood through the lens of years, says she once thought that everyone in her family had to be good in order for any one of them to be good. She knows better now.

"If you get mixed up in something just happening, you can get submerged or you can get raised up. With or without your being good. Sometimes your skill can help, but sometimes what's happening is just too big for your little dog-paddle efforts."

It's 1979 in Charlottesville, Virginia. A rip-tide is about to surge through Edith's family. Mike and Joss Reardon, parents of Edith and her sister Nora, are at the center of a volatile group of intelligent and talented friends and family members. Mike is a Jesuit-educated lawyer in his forties, a former congressional staffer, whose knowledge of history, religion, politics, and art is formidable, but to his family, often stultifying. Joss, an experimental film maker, is a punster par excellence and a dedicated mother with the temper of a virago.

The narration of The Half-life of Happiness by the author of the excellent Spartina, winner of the 1989 National Book Award, alternates between the point of view of Mike and that of daughter Edith. From both we hear of Mike's realization that his wife has fallen in love with a woman — the fiancee of one of the family's group of friends. Mike, furious about Joss's affair, decides to funnel his rage into a run for Congress.

The pacing of The Half-life of Happiness is slow up to the point of Mike's realization and decision, but the contrasts between the public image of Mike's family and the private truth, as well as between Mike's viewpoint (at the time) versus Edith's (looking back), are among the triumphs of this book. The reader is both inside and outside the story simultaneously.

Mike himself — with his particular mesh of loyalties and flirtations, great ideas and flaws — is another of the strengths of this book, as is Edith's unsparing but loving assessment of her parents, their friends, and their times. Notable also is author Casey's sense of comic timing, best seen in Mike's hapless encounters with the daughter of his political opponent. The writing throughout is sharp, witty, fine.

It's Edith who makes sense of it all, understanding as she does, ". . . that the last scene of certain happiness becomes the first scene of uncertainty." And brief is the interval between "the alarms and sadnesses of childhood" and "the first squeeze of perspective toward your vanishing point."

Edith Reardon, looking back at her childhood through the lens of years, says she once thought that everyone in her family had to be good in order for any one of them to be good. She knows better now. "If you get mixed up in something just happening, you can get submerged or you can […]

Mr. Spaceman has sprung from one of the funniest and most poignant stories in Butler's last collection, Tabloid Dreams. In Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover, lonely Edna Bradshaw told of falling in love with Desi, an alien being, in the parking lot of an Alabama Wal-Mart. Now Butler has picked up Desi and Edna's story at a later point. Married and hovering above the earth at the end of the year 2000, they're entertaining an entire busload of Texans bound for a Louisiana casino. Desi has beamed both bus and passengers up to his spaceship so he can continue his research into the nature of human beings.

This is to prepare him to reveal himself and his spaceship to earth media on New Year's Eve. With down-home hospitality, Edna offers cheese straws and sausage balls to the abducted bus passengers who can't help noticing Desi's eight fingers on each hand, all ending in little sucker disks. But he's simple and wise by turns, lacing his conversation with earthly advertising slogans and song titles.

I'm a friendly guy, he says. There Is a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke. Eventually Desi learns the life stories of individual passengers through his empathic powers. Though these often moving monologues from the heart compose a kind of cross-section of American humanity, many have the familiar ring of characters met too often in recent fiction. None is as engaging or original as Desi himself. His visit to an American supermarket, dressed in zoot suit and hat, is one of the most hilarious scenes in the book. Butler's blend of humor and insight, along with his ability to examine the human condition, is on display here, as it was in Tabloid Dreams and Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Mr.

Spaceman is a tour de force, a flight of fancy which lands in the heart.

James William Brown is the author of Blood Dance (Harcourt Brace). He teaches fiction writing in Boston.

Mr. Spaceman has sprung from one of the funniest and most poignant stories in Butler's last collection, Tabloid Dreams. In Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover, lonely Edna Bradshaw told of falling in love with Desi, an alien being, in the parking lot of an Alabama Wal-Mart. Now Butler has picked up Desi and Edna's […]

Holt, Colorado, the setting of Plainsong, is a lonesome kind of place. This small town east of Denver seems to have little to distinguish it from other rural communities of the Great Plains. But it is here that seven lonely people find themselves drawn together into a community of their own, an extended family both plainspoken and good-hearted.

Their stories are told individually at first, in alternating sections and points of view. Tom Griffith, a high school teacher with an invalid wife and two sons, brings trouble down on himself when he stands up for one of his students, Victoria, pregnant and abandoned. Tom's colleague, Maggie Jones, arranges for the young woman to find shelter at the ranch of the McPheron brothers, a pair of aging and crusty bachelors who've farmed and lived alone most of their lives.

"Well, look at you," she tells them. "You're going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind, anyway. This is your chance." To them the idea of sheltering the pregnant Victoria sounds like a big dose of pandemonium and disruption. But, aware that they've grown crotchety and set in their ways, they decide to take a chance for once.

The resulting mix of comedy and lighthearted misunderstandings is one of the most engaging features of the story. When both Tom and Maggie's troubles dovetail into the lives of the irascible McPherons, the story takes on an emotional richness made stronger by the deceptively simple and understated narration.

This style, as well as the setting of Plainsong, is reminiscent of Cormack McCarthy's Border Trilogy. And, like McCarthy, Haruf takes his time with gritty ranch details such as how to autopsy a dead horse or determine if a cow is pregnant. He also leaves several loose ends in the novel's closing scenes, which could invite a sequel.

But as it is, the unresolved elements of the plot tend to increase the authenticity of this story of these few braided lives. Together they become the kind of simple and unadorned melody suggested by the title Plainsong.

James William Brown is the author of the novel Blood Dance (Harcourt Brace). He teaches fiction writing in Boston.

Holt, Colorado, the setting of Plainsong, is a lonesome kind of place. This small town east of Denver seems to have little to distinguish it from other rural communities of the Great Plains. But it is here that seven lonely people find themselves drawn together into a community of their own, an extended family both […]

The longing to own a house by the side of the road is one of the oldest of humanity's stories. Perhaps for this reason it also functions as subtext in much of our literature, and now provides the momentum for Andre Dubus III's outstanding new novel, House of Sand and Fog.

"In my country, there is an old belief that if a bird flies into your home, it is an angel who has come to guide you . . ."

The speaker here is Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force, now owner of a bungalow on a California hillside. But that's no angel in his house — she's Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict, who believes that the Colonel's bungalow rightfully belongs to her. Actually, through an error at the county tax office, she's right. But the Colonel, who bought the house legally at auction, is also right. Each side of the ensuing property dispute sees the other through the lens of its own culture.

Americans, the Colonel thinks, spend far too much time in the "pale blue glow" of television, and thus ". . . have eyes of very small children who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or a sweet taste in the mouth." To Kathy and her deputy sheriff boyfriend, the Colonel's proud and graceful Iranian family, though U.S. citizens, are "Arabs" too far from home, "sitting on stolen property."

One of the many strengths of this story is that most of its characters come to understand the point of view of the others at least briefly. But each, through circumstance, personality, and culture, is locked into a pattern of behavior which he or she is helpless to change. Dubus's ability to inhabit characters across culture and gender is stunning.

What's at stake here, Dubus suggests, is far more than property. As this collision of cultures and good intentions gone wrong spirals into tragedy, there's a sense of inevitability like that at the end of an ancient Greek play. In our grieving for the fates of these people, we recognize ourselves, our dreams and flaws, as well as those of our own culture.

James William Brown is the author of Blood Dance (Harcourt Brace).

The longing to own a house by the side of the road is one of the oldest of humanity's stories. Perhaps for this reason it also functions as subtext in much of our literature, and now provides the momentum for Andre Dubus III's outstanding new novel, House of Sand and Fog. "In my country, there […]

When Letitia Davenant dies unexpectedly, her death becomes the first of three that summer. All together, these deaths form a kind of frame for this seamless tale of loss and reversal in the English countryside.

William Trevor's 12th novel, Death in Summer, is a wonderfully evoked work of subtlety and insight. Often compared to Chekhov, Trevor lets us see the world as if through the very hearts of his characters.

On the morning of his wife's death, Thaddeus Davenant receives a request for help from a former love, now ill and without resources. But before he can act on this, he suddenly finds himself a widower with a daughter to raise. A solitary man, even in his loveless marriage, Thaddeus lets his mother-in-law talk him into interviewing prospective nannies for his daughter. When none of the candidates proves suitable, the mother-in-law herself decides to take on the role, though both she and Thaddeus are less than comfortable with the arrangement, "They hover, like uncertain birds. They skirt emotion, steer clear of words that might drag it out of hiding." But one of the rejected candidates for the position, an unbalanced young woman named Pettie, has begun to develop dangerously romantic fantasies about Thaddeus and his daughter. Half convincing herself that he has fallen in love with her in the course of the brief interview, she tells her ovoid friend Albert, "A mansion . . . he's left with this kid in a mansion." It is in the delineation of the characters of Pettie and Albert that Death in Summer is at its most compassionate. The threadbare lives of these two grown-up orphans sadly unravel as Pettie begins to act out her fantasies. Unaware of the sinister possibilities just below the surface of his life, Thaddeus tries to deal with the claims of his former love and the new presence of his mother-in-law in his home.

With its surprise and subtle humor, Death in Summer takes on suspense as it depicts the strands which bind its characters together as well as the chains which enclose them in solitary longing. How precarious are our lives, the story seems to suggest, lightly suspended above a darkness which can bring ruin out of a single summer day. Trevor continues to be a master stylist of the highest order, generally recognized as one of the greatest living writers. Here again, as in his Collected Stories and the recent novel, Felicia's Journey, he blends his narrative skills with an all-encompassing sympathy for his characters. Death in Summer is a dark and suspenseful story of death in life and life out of death. Ingeniously crafted, it is told with the compassion of a great heart.

James William Brown is the author of Blood Dance.

When Letitia Davenant dies unexpectedly, her death becomes the first of three that summer. All together, these deaths form a kind of frame for this seamless tale of loss and reversal in the English countryside. William Trevor's 12th novel, Death in Summer, is a wonderfully evoked work of subtlety and insight. Often compared to Chekhov, […]

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