Unconventional Tales Challenge Preconceptions

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

By

The Bear Comes Home

By Rafi Zabor

W.W. Norton & Co.

Recommended: Default

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.

The Lodi brothers from Kentucky are a case in point. Fast-talking Fayette, the elder, is a mule-thief, a bootlegger, and a gun-dealer. His stubborn, taciturn younger brother John is a master gunsmith who's resolved to stop making guns, not on account of any moral scruples over the harm they can do, but because the law is after him and his brother for manufacturing patented models without permission.

The Lodi brothers flee west with their families. Fayette and his flinty wife, Jessie, have a passel of kids. John's wife, however, is not the stuff of which frontier women are made. Despondent, querulous, and frail, she withdraws from her obligations as a wife and mother, even refusing to nurse her youngest child, an ailing infant.

Responsibilities fall on her oldest daughter, 10-year-old Mattie, who is both her father's righthand helper and the keeper of her soon-to-be-deceased mother's last wish to return to Kentucky and "civilization." While Mattie struggles with her conflicting legacies, trouble continues brewing between her father and her uncle, who are set on a collision course of their own.

Much of the novel is told from Mattie's viewpoint, and a strange character she is: fierce, tough, obstinate, ignorant, shrewd. She is also blessed - or cursed - with a sort of visionary capacity that is recognized by a Choctaw healing woman who watches over the girl in her time of need.

Hardship, struggle, heartbreak, and intense isolation: Askew takes the familiar clichs about frontier life and transforms them into palpable realities. Her novel is as somber, harsh, imposing, and unforgiving as the landscape and lives it portrays.

The brutal and harrowing subject matter of Lorraine Lachs's Flowers for Mei-Ling belies the sweetness and delicacy suggested by the book's title. Born in 1949 to a Chinese father and an English mother, the novel's central character, Mei-Ling Wang, is a true child of China's Communist Revolution. Her parents are dedicated, idealistic followers of Chairman Mao. She herself becomes one of the Red Guard as a teenager.

But the true nature of the so-called Cultural Revolution of 1968 becomes appallingly clear to her as she sees her innocent parents cruelly abused and as she herself is assaulted and raped by the thuggish forces unleashed by Mao's directives.

Mei-Ling and her now-widowed mother, Emma, escape with their lives to Hong Kong, where they are taken up by a coarse, avaricious Dutch businessman with an eye for pretty girls. Eventually, Mei-Ling is led into a life of prostitution in Amsterdam, albeit a rather luxurious one as a high-priced "hostess" to visiting businessmen. Her encounter with one such client, a shy widower from Toronto, told from his perspective, is what opens this novel. He wonders how this lovely, cultivated, gentle young woman be involved in this line of work.

In the chapters that follow, narrated from several other perspectives, including Emma's and Mei-Ling's, horrors unfold that make the sordidness of her profession look wholesome by comparison. Later yet, Mei-Ling crosses paths with a good-hearted American Jew, a former '60s radical who fled to Canada, and who now finds himself reexamining some of his more nave Maoist beliefs in light of what he learns of Mei-Ling's experiences.

Lachs vividly conveys a sense of the catastrophic shocks, disruptions, and uprootings that have affected the lives of so many people all over the world in this past century. She looks unflinchingly at the outrageous inhumanities committed in the name of justice and equality, and casts a coolly perceptive eye on the milder inhumaneness of a world seen only as a marketplace.

THE LIFE AND MUSINGS OF A TALKING BEAR

* The Bear was a good act. He was a muzzy medium-brown bear who looked small enough to be safe when on all fours but absolutely huge when he reared up and stretched out his arms to get the oohs and aahs, that moment of awe without which no artistic production, even one that rolls itself in the gutter twice daily, can completely succeed. It was a small transfiguration, but it was sufficient unto the day, and it was probably what the people on the corner, after they had stopped laughing and wiping their mouths, took home with them when they left. Otherwise, the Bear knew his cues, never gave Jones any trouble on the job,.... Passersby were interested of course, but seldom afraid. They may even have wondered more about Jones.... The Bear knew how to behave in company. He had the social number down.

- From 'The Bear Comes Home'

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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