Novels Reveal New England Intensity and Alienation

BOOKS

AFFLICTION by Russell Banks, New York: Harper & Row, 354 pp., $18.95

A STRANGER IN THE KINGDOM

by Howard Frank Mosher, New York: Doubleday, 465 pp., $18.95

HERE are two novels about northern New England: specifically, New Hampshire and Vermont - two places that are hard to write about.

Unlike the South, New England has no great, sad regional experience (other than winter, of course). It does not have the well-thumbed and heavily theorized sense of tragedy that has kept writers alive and well in the South and Appalachia.

In its villages and declining milltowns, there is the same poverty and ignorance, the same purposeless lives and prejudicial tyrannies. Nevertheless, social alienation and conflict must be drawn from more subtle situations.

I have lived in small New England towns and I've met people like Russell Banks's character Wade Whitehouse. I have seen them go through their lives, desperate to know what they were supposed to do, where they were supposed to find comfort and riches, and with whom they could find love and stability. But even if I hadn't, I think I'd be as completely convinced by Banks's portrayal of the decline and fall (from not very high) of this essentially good man.

Wade Whitehouse's story is told by his brother, who has escaped from the town of Lawford, N.H., and teaches in suburban Boston. Wade has remained in Lawford, going from high school to work as a well driller without a break in between.

Without the sorting out process of a college education, he develops a lonely philosophy of life and a value system that begins to go askew as he gets older. He becomes the town policeman and in this job tries to solve a hunting accident. But his theories are confused and recondite, amateurish in conception.

This, coupled with his angry attempts to win back the affection of his daughter, provide enough complications in his life to push him over the line into imagining conspiracies.

Not all this holds together precisely, either as plot or as the realism it's supposed to be, but Banks has the saving grace of being a fascinating writer anyway.

Toward the end, he does not even have to identify the characters. You just know who's talking and what they mean. It's no small feat to concentrate on this one man, this latter-day Ethan Frome in this latter-day Starksboro.

Banks is a master of the art of slowly building dread, hinting at an approaching crime, nourishing it with detail, with small scenes.

There's a scene of this small-town police officer, lonely and divorced, coming out of his trailer, starting his beat-up car on a winter morning, in which the cold, the poverty, the sense of failure are as sharply etched as the frost on the windshield.

Banks asks his reader to agree that violence has to be an expected reaction to failure. But he also shows that failure is a type of self-inflicted madness that seems more acute in a small place.

I don't know who advised ``Affliction'' as a title, but it's a poor choice. This is a good New England story, old, cold, and starkly beautiful, and like most of New England, unforgettable.

NEARLY the same elements are in Howard Frank Mosher's latest novel: small-town New England life; young men coming to terms with their rural upbringing; the falling apart of an agrarian society; and the influence of outside elements. To these, Mosher has added racial violence.

His novel is set in the northeast corner of Vermont, not exactly the United States and not exactly Canada, a place dubbed ``the Northeast Kingdom'' by the state's legendary Sen. George Aiken, a place Mosher has written of before in ``Disappearances'' and ``Where the Rivers Flow North.'' This story is inspired loosely (if such a thing is possible) by an incident of racial cohabitation in the town of Irasburg, Vt., back in the '60s, which revealed a streak of violence and baseless intolerance in that most unlikely of places.

Mosher likes to weave elements of Vermont history into his work, even if he has to rearrange a decade or two to make them fit. In this one he uses, among other things, the still-unsolved murder of Orville Gibson, a Newbury, Vt., farmer, so despised by his townsmen that no witnesses would come forward. Mosher may be the best writer on the French-Canadian culture (some would call it a subculture) in Vermont.

The young narrator's father owns the local newspaper and his older brother is a rough-hewn country lawyer. There is a good deal of bucolic philosophizing that goes on, which, after living 20 years, more or less, in Vermont I have never heard philosophized.

That, however, is about all that's wrong with ``A Stranger in the Kingdom.'' The setting, hardly as bleak as the town in Russell Banks's story, is endearing. This is because of Mosher's great affection for the Northeast Kingdom, a place that has gone gradually from woods to farms and back to woods again and has, says the editor's son, ``remained free of significant news ... for the past 150 years.'' Mosher deals frankly with the idea that prejudice results from fear of the unknown and unexpected.

The local church is assigned a new minister who turns out to be an erudite black man, a former Canadian Armed Forces chaplain, who despite his wise reticence, is drawn into conflict with the local yahoos. The conflict is intensified when a young, homeless Montreal girl arrives, answering a personal ad placed by a ne'er-do-well member of the narrator's family. The minister gives her shelter when no one else will, and at the same time gives his enemies the opportunity to arrange what looks like her murder by his hands.

Mosher has succeeded in placing an important and uncomfortable event in the state's history in a fictional setting any Vermonter will recognize. They will also recognize the liberties he's taken with facts. For others, the story will still be a good one, told in a straightforward style with a plainly worded intensity charactertistic of northern Vermont residents. 30{et

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