Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Telling Tales

New fiction for lovers, parents, and other difficult people.

By Michael Lowenthal

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Fiction has always been a powerful means of sending messages. Consider, for example, the fictions upon which our end-of-year holidays are based: the son of God born from a virgin mother; one day's ration of oil burning for eight. These stories pack such allegorical wallop that entire civilizations have been built on them. To honor the tradition of holiday story-spinning, here are 10 fine novels published this year. Match the books with the right recipients and see if they can read between the lines of your holiday cheer.

Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23)

If this holiday season finds you stuck on an old love, pining for the one who got away, you can either buy yourself some self-help dreck about "letting go" or buy your erstwhile mate this bewitching novel and hope it convinces him or her to return. Steeped in a uniquely Irish mix of foggy bleakness and emerald optimism, the novel alternates between two characters who, of course, are fated to meet and fall in love. The tale is romantic in the best, most solid sense, eschewing sentimentality but embracing all the inexplicable magic of human coupling. And though it winds up with a kind of Molly Bloomian yes, the only thing predictable about Four Letters of Love is its power to tempt smiles from the Grinchiest of recipients.

The Swine's Wedding, by Daniel Evan Weiss (Serpent's Tail, $17.99)

For the overbearing mother-in-law (or mother-out-law, for those of us whose relationships are not legally sanctioned), here's a cautionary tale to teach a searing lesson. The formally innovative narrative charts the downward-spiraling relationship of Solomon Beneviste, a Jewish man, and Allison Pennybaker, a WASPy woman, who decide to wed. As a nuptial gift, Solomon's mother traces the Beneviste genealogy back to the Portuguese Inquisition, and the project sparks all manner of trouble. The dangers of intermarriage and assimilation (or perhaps the dangers of excessive concern with these phenomena?) are symbolized in the book's final, dramatic conflagration. Since Christmas and Hanukkah overlap this year, you don't even have to specify which holiday you're honoring with the gift.

The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick (Alfred A. Knopf, $23)

If you know a smarty-pants who needs de-trousering, give her this latest offering from Ozick. With almost unfathomable inventiveness and intellect, the brainy author spins the tale of Ruth Puttermesser, a stifled Manhattan bureaucrat who converses with an uncle who died four years before her birth, fashions a golem from her house-plant dirt, becomes New York's most popular mayor, is ousted, and ends up in paradise. Sound wacky? It is. Ozick breaks all the rules and gets away with everything. So if your friend thinks she's witty and clever and good with language, this novel will be a shaming wake-up call. In Ozick's company, everyone else is a dunce.

My Drowning, by Jim Grimsley (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $18.95)

Do you have one of those friends who's always trying to impress you with how bleak and underprivileged his childhood was? Always one-upping with tales of deprivation? Trump him with this startlingly gritty and moving novel about a hardscrabble North Carolina girlhood in the 1940s. Narrating in a convincing female voice, Grimsley combines descriptions of wrenching hunger, abuse, and sibling rivalry with more dreamlike religious elements to forge an indelible portrait. In the same class as Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina and Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster, My Drowning is a feel-bad novel to remind readers that Christmas -- before the advent of Perry Como specials and Whitman samplers -- was about a hungry family in a manger.

Andorra, by Peter Cameron (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23)

Give this book to your most unreliable friend and see if he gets the hint. In Alexander Fox, Cameron has created one of the most likably unreliable narrators since Stevens in The Remains of the Day; this is a novel in which nothing is what it seems. (For example, Andorra, landlocked on actual maps, in this tale has a port city.) Fox has fled to this imaginary country to avoid a tragedy about which he is precisely imprecise. Cameron's writing, likewise, exhibits a restrained lack of restraint reminiscent of E.M. Forster at his best. The surprise ending will send a sobering message to your flighty pal.

Soul Kiss, by Shay Youngblood (Riverhead Books, $21)

Deadbeat dads, here's a book not to give your daughters (lest your parole officer accuse you of impropriety). As a teenager, narrator Mariah Santos corresponds with the mysterious father she's never met. Eventually she travels across the country to live with him, and the two share a passion that verges on dangerous. But the center of the story is Mariah's growing up with neither father nor mother present and finding her own identity. Mixing gritty realism with over-the-top fable-telling, Youngblood brings brash originality to what might otherwise be a standard loss-of-innocence scenario. In truth, this would be an inspired gift from any dad (or mom).

Perfect Agreement, by Michael Downing (Counterpoint, $22)

For the grammar queen of a friend who's constantly correcting your who/whom mistakes, try this witty, graceful novel about Mark Sternum, a white writing teacher who gets fired for insisting that a black student be able to write. The story of Sternum's academic fiasco is artfully intertwined with his family saga, involving a father who disappears to live with the last remaining Shakers. Downing tackles the touchy subjects of racism and political correctness with refreshingly lighthearted forthrightness, and the droll language lessons that end each chapter are alone worth the cover price. The only problem is telling your friend where to shelve the gift: next to Steinbeck or Strunk and White?

Love Invents Us, by Amy Bloom (Random House, $21)

Will your holiday feast be a "Guess Who's Coming to" Dinner? Do your parents consider your mate inappropriately black (or white) or old (or young)? Chances are, you can't convince them otherwise, but give them this novel and maybe they'll gain some understanding of love's power to cross boundaries. Bloom's characters find love in all the wrong places, and they risk everything for it: a high school English teacher with one of his students; that same student, a Jewish girl, with a black basketball player. In spare, precise prose, Bloom conveys the taut urgency of desire with such force that only the most hardhearted of readers would dare deny it.

They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell (Modern Library, $15.50)

For the grandiloquent grandparent who waxes nostalgic about the "good old days," wrap up this classic novel as a reminder that those days weren't always so good. Written 60 years ago, but just reissued in a handsome Modern Library edition (including a new introduction by the octogenarian author), the book stands as one of the definitive evocations of an American childhood. Eight-year-old Bunny Morison lives with his adoring mother and distant father in a small town in Illinois. The family rejoices on Armistice Day, but then the flu epidemic of 1918 brings tragedy. In Maxwell's quiet, measured prose, the conclusion is all the more shattering. A worthy rediscovery.

The Falling Boy, by David Long (Scribner, $22)

If you're unfortunate enough to have a husband who attended the Promise Keepers march and thinks that act constitutes being a good spouse, please please please give him this book, which examines marriage from a male perspective with heartbreaking and inspiring honesty. David Long crafts the story of Mark Singer, a carpenter in 1950s Montana who marries into the four-daughtered Stavros family. Mark weds Olivia, but ends up in a less-than-lawful relationship with one of his sisters-in-law. This quiet, diamond-cut book gathers force with an accumulation of tiny, perfectly realized scenes. Sentence for sentence, it's perhaps the best-written novel of the year.

Michael Lowenthal's first novel, The Same Embrace, will be published by Dutton next fall, at which time he hopes it will appear on someone else's holiday gift list.

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