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Unconventional Tales Challenge Preconceptions

A talking bear, Indian territory, and Mao's China are the focus of these rich works of fiction

By Merle Rubin / September 15, 1997



BOSTON

The Bear Comes Home

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By Rafi Zabor

W.W. Norton & Co.

480 pp., $25

The Mercy Seat

By Rilla Askew

Viking

427 pp., $23.95

Flowers for Mei-Ling

By Lorraine Lachs

Carroll & Graf

401 pp., $24

When we first meet the furry, four-hundred-pound hero of Rafi Zabor's out-of-the-ordinary first novel, The Bear Comes Home, he and his human friend Jones are trying to earn a few dollars with their street-act.

What passersby see is a trained bear and his keeper. The man plays music, the bear dances. The two stage a wrestling match that the bear allows the man to "win." This animal, it's very clear, is "smarter than the average bear."

But there's more to this Bear than meets the eye. The Bear has a secret, known only to his friend and keeper, Jones. The creature can talk - and not only talk, but argue, speculate, analyze, complain, and philosophize, lacing his conversation with quotes from Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Byron, Kafka, and Hemingway.

This Bear is not only literate, but musical. Ever since cubhood, he's been practicing on the alto saxophone, inspired by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Not surprisingly, his cherished - if seemingly impossible - dream is to become a jazz musician. But to accomplish this, he has to risk exposing his unique identity.

Up until this point, the Bear has been living a kind of "underground" existence. Most of the time, he pretends in public to be an "ordinary" trained bear being kept by Jones. Occasionally, he ventures out, semi-disguised by a trenchcoat and broad-brimmed hat, hoping to pass as a hairy human - which is not all that difficult in New York City! The Bear knows how dangerous it could be for him to fall into the hands of the law or, worse yet, scientists eager to find out what makes a talking bear tick.

When the Bear decides to pursue his music, come what may, he is launched on a voyage of discovery as a performer, a composer, and an individual. In his accounts of the Bear's jam sessions, rehearsals, recording sessions, and road trips, author Zabor, himself a "music journalist and occasional jazz drummer," brilliantly communicates the technical, intellectual, and emotional intricacies accompanying the creation of jazz.

Zabor richly portrays the often-tempestuous relationships in the Bear's life: his long-standing, sometimes stressful friendship with Jones and his blossoming inter-species romance with a highly intelligent, hyper-sensitive woman named Iris. As the Bear tartly says of himself, he's no Winnie-the-Pooh. Zabor's erudite, street-wise hipster has a vocabulary filled with $10 (and four-letter) words. He's moody, temperamental, headstrong, and self-dramatizing: a textbook example of the Difficult Artist.

Although Zabor gives play to the comic elements inherent in the very subject of an ursine intellectual, this novel is surprisingly short on the kind of whimsy one might have expected. Unlike the winsome "Hal Jam," hero of William Kotzwinkle's recent "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," Zabor's Bear doesn't even have a name, and his story is not really satirical. He is a (relatively) serious creature, troubled by a fierce thirst for perfection, seeking it whole-heartedly in his music and his love life.

Zabor's eloquent descriptions of the process of musical improvisation will certainly delight jazz buffs, but even "musically challenged" readers are likely to find themselves intrigued and touched by the Bear's questing spirit.

The Mercy Seat, the first novel from a prize-winning writer of short fiction, Rilla Askew, is a manifestly ambitious, densely woven, beautifully written, darkly powerful story with distinct Biblical overtones.

The main action takes place in the 1880s and 1890s in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, at that time still recognized as Indian territory. The tribes driven off their lands elsewhere have been allowed to resettle here. Former slaves have also come here to live as free men. And here, too, white settlers have been coming, more than a few attracted by the idea that the territory may be beyond the reach of the law.