V FOR VICTOR by Mark Childress, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 289 pp., $11.95
IT'S pretty hard not to be drawn in by an opening paragraph as seductive as this one: ``Think of a place in the heart of nowhere. A place made of water, the sky, a salt marsh. Not much else. Trees, a boat. A boy of 16 with a dangerous imagination.''
Sixteen-year-old Victor Sylvester has been shipped downriver by his daddy - exiled, it feels like to him - to care for his ailing grandmother, Willie. Willie's small island lies at the mouth of the Magnolia River, overlooking Mobile Bay. There are fish to catch and swamps to explore, alligators to beware of and beaches to be combed. If this Tom Sawyer-like existence sounds idyllic, though, it isn't enough for Victor, who is ``too old to love this place as he did when he was little, and too young to go off anywhere else.''
Besides, it's 1942, there's a war on, and Victor longs to be a part of it - a longing drenched with all the fierceness of adolescence. Instead, he has to baby-sit his grandmother, with nothing to do all day but idle around and nothing to do in the evenings but lie on the porch in the dark, listening to the radio. It's a Silvertone, ``shaped like a church, with a cool amber diamond dial where the preacher would be.'' Night after night, Victor listens to real life passing him by: speeches by Churchill, the ravings of Hitler, baseball games, ``The Shadow.'' Night after night his own secret dreams of glory are spun out to the accompanying strains of big-band music and Edward R. Murrow.
Restless beyond enduring, chafing against his youth, his elderly charge, and his enforced inactivity, Victor wishes for something - anything - to happen.
``Be careful what you wish for,'' his grandmother tells him. ``You might just get it.''
As usual, she's right. Victor soon has more on his hands than he bargained for. Hearing an odd noise on the bay one night, he sets off to track it down. In the process, he has a run-in with a half-wild Alabama swamp boy named Butch, who burns his boat. Stumbling home at dawn through the swamp, Victor finds a dead body, and on the way to report it to the authorities, his adventure really begins. He shanghais Butch's boat, which promptly runs out of gas. He spends the day adrift on the bay, and finally, at sunset, comes ashore near a swanky resort known as the Hotel. After ``liberating'' a few gallons of gasoline, he launches back into the dark waters of the bay and runs smack into a submarine.
Improbable? You bet. And there's more to come - all of it just as enthralling and delightful. From here on out, what might at first have seemed a gently paced coming-of-age story turns into a rambunctious tale full of the kind of characters who crowd a would-be teen-age hero's dreams: wealthy spies, impostors, Nazi infiltrators, double-crossers. Along with his sidekick, Butch, who plays Huck Finn to his Tom Sawyer, Victor leaps gleefully into the fray, bent on saving the day and thereby proving his manhood, unaware of the danger (and violence) that such a venture entails.
Victor learns some valuable - and terrible - lessons. The bitter revelation of his older brother Joseph's shameful secret takes the shine off Victor's image of him, and brings him abruptly face to face with the realities of war.
He also comes to see the truth in his grandmother's words about the ``jubilee,'' a natural phenomenon he has grown up hearing about, something that happens once in a blue moon, where tides and winds and weather all converge in some inexplicable way and bring every kind of fish and creature of the sea crawling up on shore for people to scoop up in their hands. This vision of the jubilee is a thread running through the book, and it's Willie who sees its significance.
``I see all them other places in your eyes,'' she tells Victor. ``But what you don't know is where you are right now is special. This bay is the one place on earth where there is a jubilee. ... You can go all the way around the world and you won't see a jubilee again unless you come back to here.'' The real ``jubilee'' is life itself. And sure enough, Victor finds that all the things that make up humanity, with its loves and hates, frailties, angers, loyalties, and small heroisms, aren't the special province of some exotic locale, but are in abundance right in his own backyard.
Childress, a native of Alabama, whose first novel, ``A World Made of Fire,'' was well received, is a powerful new voice from the South. His generous descriptions light up the pages: It's not just hot, it's ``hot as ten summers''; bed sheets are ``soft as skin''; and trees wear Spanish moss ``as a sign of their age.''
``V for Victor'' is a rich, compelling story: funny, suspenseful, tender, and thoroughly enjoyable. Best of all, in the wonderfully engaging character of Victor, Childress shows boyhood in all its endearing awkwardness, fervency, and fire in a boy eager to cast off the traces of childhood and become a man.