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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

MARCH 29, 1999: 

Right From Wrong by Cindy Bonner, Algonquin Books, $21.95 hard

The fact that Algonquin Books publishes Cindy Bonner's work tells the reader that it's artistic, literary, and probably not available in airports. Woe to all frequent flyers! The cover of Cindy Bonner's Right From Wrong and the covers of her three previous books (Lily, Looking After Lily, and The Passion of Dellie O'Barr) conjure visions of lace and unbuttoned bodices, long, flowing hair, fiery-eyed women, and commanding muscular men, but she writes love stories, not romances. And make no mistake, Cindy Bonner, who lives in Yorktown, Texas, is like one of her previous characters: She doesn't believe in "such a thing as 'happily ever after.' There's only happily every now and then." It is no surprise, then, that the distinction between right from wrong in her new work is as hard to pinpoint as the happiness of her two main characters.

At the heart of this book is the intense bond between two cousins, Florida Faye "Sunny" DeLony and Gil Dailey, and the consequences of their love for one another, which is deemed incestuous by their family and certain to bring the wrath of God. The story begins in 1913 in Texas when Sunny and Gil are 12 and 14 years of age and it relies on omniscient narration, alternating between the viewpoints of both Sunny and Gil as they struggle to remain apart, but are continuously drawn together.

Initially, Sunny has no concern about convention or the consequences of her love for Gil. All she wants is to be with him. It is Gil who succumbs to family and societal pressures and decides they can never be together. Even given the limited choices available to women of her time, Sunny subsequently makes some devastatingly horrendous life decisions. But Gil has a broader horizon, and makes the seemingly correct decisions. He serves his country in the First World War, returns and becomes a successful tire salesman, and chooses a proper wife. Yet he is ultimately no more happy or content than Sunny.

The title encompasses far more than love between two cousins. It questions the role of parents in deciding what is right and wrong for their children. It questions the right and wrong of a war that scarred thousands of American citizens. It also raises the question of whether the pursuit of intense passion should be the focus of anyone's life. Gil and Sunny have that type of passionate bond so admired by readers of romance and love stories. But no one can ignore the terrible pain and tragedy they leave in the wake of their desire to be together. As such, Right From Wrong transcends its historical setting. It is, rather, a complex, timeless tale of morality and hard choices, crafted by one of Texas' best. --Bonnie Bratton


Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray, Vintage, $13 paper

"The color you almost always remember when you remember Little Buddy Marshall," writes Albert Murray in the seductive opening pages of his novel Train Whistle Guitar, "is sky-blue. Because that shimmering summer sunshine blueness in which neighborhood hens used to cackle while distant yard dogs used to bark and mosquito hawks used to flit and float along nearby barbwire fences, was a boy's color. ... But the shade of blue and blueness you always remember whenever and for whatever reason you remember Luzana Cholly is steel blue, which is also the clean, oil-smelling color of gunmetal and the gray-purple patina of freight train engines and railroad slag." The choice of color is intentional, for Train Whistle Guitar is all about the blues. (And not your watered-down woe-is-me sort of blues either, but a drink-muddy-water-sleep-in-a-hollow-log slide guitar sort of blues, just as his barrelhouse is not a boogie-woogie-bugle-boy-of-Company-C kind of barrelhouse, but a walkin'-bass-right-hand-jump-up-and-slap-'em-doin'-the-dozens-on-your-mother sort of barrelhouse.)

But more than a novel about music, Train Whistle Guitar -- first published to wide acclaim in 1974 and now paperbacked by Vintage as a modern classic -- is about growing up black in the sawmill bayous of Gasoline Point, Alabama in the 1920s. It is not only about the rail-ridin' Luzana Cholly and pianoman Stagolee Dupas, but about the brownskin strut of Blue Eula Bacote, the grown-up talk at Papa Gumbo Willie McWorthy's barbershop, and the adolescent thrill of making time with big-butt Beulah Chaney in the plum thickets beyond the collard patch. It is told in startling language, a rich, textured, distinctly American voice that is all Murray's own. The characters are well-sketched and finely realized, their stories symbolic without being stereotypical.

The novel does have a tendency to wander (there's no overarching plot to speak of), and the stylized language plays a touch too tailored at times, but those weaknesses are also its strengths: Far from a pop-art potboiler, the novel is best read as a slow traipse through several stories richly told. Rooted, elegiac, sentimental, Train Whistle Guitar is not just a portrait of the blues, but a hometown study and coming-of-age novel with a mesmerizing and almost mythical cast. Good reading. --Jay Hardwig


Girl Walking Backwards by Bett Williams, St. Martin's Griffin, $12.95 paper

Girl Walking Backwards is promoted as an "anti-coming-of-age story" and in some ways that's true. Compared to the adults around her, the protagonist,16-year-old Skye, is far more evolved in both action and thought. Her father is classically absent, chasing youth vis-a-vis a partying lifestyle in Hollywood. Her mother, while physically present in Santa Barbara, is mentally sunk into a madness fueled by cheap New Age spirituality. And it goes without saying that her teachers are clueless automatons.

Skye, on the other hand, may be confused, lonely, and emotional, but at least she knows why she's that way. For one thing, her home life with mom is a mess, with frequent fights punctuated by visiting astrologers and trips to personal growth workshops. For another, she is gay in the straight world of SoCal high school, and must struggle to decode ambiguous signals from potential lovers.

For all her rationality, Skye is romantic and intense: Her fantasy is to rescue a runaway girl from a Dumpster and "love the life back into her." When she sees goth-girl Jessica sitting alone at a bus stop in a torn, ill-fitting dress, Skye gets her chance. She follows Jessica to a coffee shop, they wind up talking, and Skye is swept into Jessica's darkly intoxicating world.

When Jessica and Skye's mother wind up in the hospital after botched suicide attempts, Skye realizes it is actually her mother she has been longing to save. "I agreed to carry Mom up to a certain point," Skye decides. "People had made her promises, that she would have a home and a life that would unfold in a logical narrative but it had all fallen apart, largely because of her own decisions. Still, she gave me life. Despite everything, I feel I owe her for that."

This decision marks Skye's transition into true, responsible adulthood. With the help of a generous friend and a simpatico new lover, Skye is able to construct the life of tenderness and security she has been craving all along; she has succeeded at last in creating a home.

Throughout Skye's journey to self-actualization, her emotions are rendered in vivid detail but are never given a chance to breathe, and so Girl Walking Backwards suffers from the weight of its own introspection. When Skye feels intimidated by a mass of girls giggling in a corner at a party, she notes, "Those girls scared me so I decided to hate them for a minute." Skye's feelings are analyzed and rationalized the moment they appear, which bars the reader from getting involved in these feelings, or even believing them. We never doubt Skye's clearheadedness for a minute; despite the tumultuous events in her life, we know she'll come through it. And once we know this, there's little reason to keep reading. --Jessica Berthold


Desire Lines: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow & Co., $24 hard

A pat formula for an investigative story: Someone with a professional involvement in solving a crime develops a personal interest. In Christina Baker Cline's Desire Lines, there's just one more layer -- newly divorced Kathryn Campbell, heroine of this murder mystery, is a recently divorced 28-year-old who is still confused about what she wants to do with her life. (That she quits her dead-end job as arts editor at a weekly paper in Virginia to move back in with Mom in Bangor, Maine is one detail that gave me more pause than the crime itself.)

Without realizing what she's doing, Kathryn arrives home a few weeks before her 10th high school reunion. But she, along with the rest of the town, continues to be haunted by the disappearance of Jennifer, her closest childhood friend. On graduation night 10 years ago, moody Jennifer walked away from her small clique of friends and into the Maine wilderness, never to be seen again. Ten years later, it's still all the town can talk about.

At the prodding of her mother, who's tired of playing host to a daughter who watches daytime TV in her Gen-X jammies, Kathryn solicits a writing assignment from her old pal Jack Ledbetter (Lead better? Bed letter? Bed wetter?), once a member of her high school clan, now the editor of the Bangor Daily News. Rumpled Jack is the classic newspaperman, and he beseeches Kathryn to exhume the Jennifer story to try to make some sense of it, 10 years later. Kathryn gets to blame her failed relationships, iffy career, and existential angst on this one event, so initially she's half-hearted about trying to get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, she and Jack fall hard for one another. Predictably, it becomes personal.

Formulas aside, Kline has managed to make her second novel a nice, easy read. Written in unobtrusive prose, it does have some painful Eighties references thrown in for kicks. Kline crafts dialogue that excels as witty interplay, a sort of conversational shorthand between old friends. And as a former babysitter for Stephen and Tabitha King and more recently an instructor at Yale, NYU, and the University of Virginia, Kline writes evocatively about Maine. While the coincidental detail of Kathryn needing to unravel the mystery of her best friend's disappearance like a good reporter runs rather shallow, Kline does ultimately succeed in making her book entertaining. --Meredith Phillips


The Last King of Scotland: A Novel by Giles Foden, Knopf, $25 hard

The question that hides like a fat man behind a broomstick throughout the entirety of Giles Foden's first novel, The Last King of Scotland, is articulated more than once by Foden's characters: Why doesn't he just leave?

Nicholas Garrigan, the man in question, is a doctor who departs his native Scotland to practice medicine in Mbarara, Uganda, a remote part of the Central African bush. The book takes place during the rule of Idi Amin Dada, arguably one of the fiercest dictators in African history and the mysteriously alluring presence driving Garrigan's markedly Conradesque descent into the leader's psychological manipulations and the sinister politics of the dark continent. His treatment of this infamous historical figure, though, is a strange one.

Throughout more than the first half of the novel, Idi Amin seems very much like a clown. Any menace he employs is written with an underlying vaudeville sidestep, making him seem more a slightly loony and misled goof than the dangerous politician and mass murderer that he was throughout his reign. He jokes, he poses, he enjoys his position of power as a child enjoys his own birthday party, he tells tales in parables too simple for wisdom, and he farts -- his first actual treatment by the new doctor is for an explosive case of gas. He lives in a typical suburban house that has, of all things, a trap door concealed by a bookcase with a torture dungeon hidden behind it.

But the clownishness disappears in a shocking flash, and we (as well as Garrigan) see Amin for the ruthless bully that he is. Following an incident where the doctor is asked by a friend to perform an abortion on one of Amin's wives -- whom the friend has impregnated -- Garrigan sees firsthand how easy and efficiently Amin can spill blood, regardless of whose it is.

At the book's beginning, accounts of tropical ailments and Garrigan's makeshift medical procedures make for reading as compelling as a car crash, as well as shed light on the haphazard connection between ruling ideology and execution, but in the end The Last King of Scotland engages the reader only when things start to go badly. And, by this point, the events in the plot have become so mired by the weight of history that easy devices and contrived twists in plot are necessary to keep the story on track. When Uganda is invaded by Tanzania, for example, and Amin's oppressive army is forced into retreat and defeat, Garrigan's life has already become something of a political-action cliche, complete with border-crossing detainment and subsequent isolation to write a book about his experiences -- this book. By tale's end, Foden raises some serious questions, but, unfortunately, he doesn't raise them effectively enough to banish the most persistent one: Why didn't he just leave? --Christopher Hess


Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.95 hard

Perhaps Jack Dawson from Titanic thought he had the last word on male arrogance when he mounted the stern of the doomed ship and proclaimed himself "King of the World!" Or maybe director James Cameron felt he cornered the market with the same proclamation at the Academy Awards when he picked up his prize. Both of these individuals look like milk-fed puppies, however, when compared to the protagonist of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, Charlie Croker, and the motley assortment of males tangled in Croker's web.

The long-awaited tome, which by now has had plenty of time to be placed high on a literary pedestal by reviewers of every ilk, removes Wolfe from his usual Eastern urban territory to Atlanta, a city known for reinventing itself. Literally. From the ashes of Sherman rose this city that invites the ambitious Southerner to try his hand at success. And in Tom Wolfe's world, the invitation is extended to males only. As in previous works, women exist only in their relationship to the men with whom they are involved. As infuriating as this is, it's also Wolfe's point. These characters are the self-perceived Masters of the Universe; women are among the spoils of their wars. While nothing in A Man in Full equals the phrase Wolfe coined in Bonfire of the Vanities to describe these trophy women -- "lemon tarts" -- in this effort he nonetheless provides a decent description for them: boys with breasts. In a rollicking scene roughly halfway through the book, a woman's existence without a man is achingly brought to life. Croker's overthrown first wife makes a difficult and public first social outing without her ex and is rendered invisible to the crowd among her. Even her guests at an expensive, exclusive art opening stop mid-sentence when she is the sole listener.

A Man in Full and Bonfire invite other comparisons. Both novels are propelled by ambitious men heading off certain disaster. And both are concerned with high stakes of the financial, professional, and racial sorts. What makes A Man in Full so readable, however, is the careening course that Wolfe unfolds. And the course is far from linear. It's more like circular. The ever-widening circle of Atlanta realtors and their shenanigans -- and the repercussions those shenanigans wield -- are as far-reaching as down-trodden Oakland and even frosty Helsinki.

In fact, Charlie Croker's journey in the story is almost Dickensian. The center of the story is morality, perhaps not as overt as the Charles Dickens' variety, but it's easily as crucial. The destinies of politicians, developers, bankers, and, oddly enough, home health-care providers are intertwined. But while the intersection of some of these characters may strike readers as clever by half, it has the effect of making this novel a literary page-turner. The reader may be able to predict oncoming plot twists, but the anticipation of their arrival makes the payoff delightful. And Wolfe can pay off. --Barbara Chisholm


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