BOSTON — GOODNIGHT, NEBRASKA
By Tom McNeal
311 pp., $23
By Bharti Kirchner
336 pp., $23.95.
By Lucinda Roy
382 pp., $24
By Dorit Rabinyan
Translated from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan
236 pp., $22.50
Novelists around the world still grapple with the connection between place and identity.
In Tom McNeal's accomplished first novel, a teenage boy leaves his home in Utah to make a fresh start in the mythical town of Goodnight, Neb., which is also the title of the book. The main character in Bharti Kirchner's poignant "Shiva Dancing," is a girl from a small rural village in India, who is kidnapped, rescued, and brought to America. Now a grown woman, she is trying to find a way of putting together the two parts of her heritage. Born in London to an English actress and a West African writer, the heroine of Lucinda Roy's ambitious novel, "Lady Moses," grows up pining for the far-off land described in her father's stories.
Only the adolescent girls featured by Israeli journalist, playwright, and poet Dorit Rabinyan in her first novel, "Persian Brides," are firmly rooted in their ancestral culture. And judging from Rabinyan's vivid evocation of their fetid, cloyingly closed-in lives in the Jewish quarter of a Persian village in the early years of this century, one would have to conclude that migration is good for the soul.
Take Randall Hunsacker, the husky, gruff, likable, rather innocent-hearted lower-class hero of Goodnight, Nebraska. When his father dies in an accident, Randall's no-class mother takes up with a sordid fellow who's got eyes for Randall's nubile teenage sister. As problems worsen, precipitating a near disaster, Randall is given the chance to get away and start over.
The little farming town of Goodnight is not Randall's idea of Shangri-La. Compared with Salt Lake City, this place looks like "Hicks-ville." But, as McNeal deftly, touchingly, and humorously illustrates, there's a lot that a young man can learn, even from "hicks." In the tradition of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Anne Tyler, McNeal goes beyond the faade of a seemingly dull small town to reveal how extraordinary "ordinary" lives can be.
We first meet Meena Kumari, heroine of Shiva Dancing, as a happy little girl of 7, about to be wed to her beloved playmate Vishnu in her native village in Rajasthan. The image of seven-year-olds getting married in this case is not unduly jarring, not only because Kirchner skillfully conveys Meena's joy and excitement about the event, but also because we learn that the bride and groom will return to their parents' homes after the ceremony, and wait another seven years before truly becoming "man and wife."
But marauding bandits kidnap the little girl, altering the course of her life. In her mid-30s, Meena has become a successful computer-software designer. She lives in San Francisco, where she has a circle of cosmopolitan friends and acquaintances. Yet she longs to reconnect with her past: her family, her village, her childhood love, and India itself.
She meets Antoine Dobson, a handsome American novelist who shares her attachment to India. Meanwhile, back in India, Meena's childhood sweetheart, Vishnu, has grown up to become a journalist, whose courageous efforts to expose corruption have cost him his job. After 28 years, he and Meena reconnect via e-mail.
What will happen when Meena revisits the land of her birth?
The author has created such appealing characters and has done such a good job of portraying her heroine's longings and uncertainties that we are kept guessing until Meena reaches her final decision. Kirchner has also made good use of her own previous experience as an author of cookbooks: her descriptions of foods, beverages, and other domestic customs are richly suggestive, adding color and flavor to an already evocative novel.
Jacintha Moses is the narrator as well as the heroine of Lucinda Roy's, Lady Moses. She is a prickly, complicated character, strong yet confused, resentful yet resilient, and the novel in which she tells her story reflects this unevenness.
Jacintha's father, Simon, a West African writer, works in a Brillo factory to earn a living. Jacintha's mother, Louise, is a white English actress, very much in love with her husband. But Simon's death when Jacintha is only 5 is a devastating blow to the family's modest but happy life in South London. Louise is shattered.
Jacintha's pride in her family's unconventional, bohemian lifestyle turns into bitterness at their poverty. Only memories of her father and the friendship of her parents' kind-hearted friend, Alfred, provide the little girl with spiritual sustenance.
Entering young womanhood, Jacintha is swept off her feet by the ardor of a handsome white American man with a passion for things African. But it is uncertain whether their headlong romance will be a tale of perfect soul mates finding each other or an illustration of the adage "Look before you leap."
Their whirlwind courtship leads to marriage, a new start in America, the birth of a child, and a trip to Africa. But beneath this bright surface - not even very far beneath - trouble is brewing. The situation reaches a crisis on a trip to West Africa, where Jacintha has a series of dramatic, sometimes strange, experiences that crystallize her sense of who she is and what she should do.
Roy, who has also published books of poetry, is at her strongest describing Jacintha's girlhood and, later, her feelings for her own daughter. The climactic scenes set in Africa, however, are oddly disappointing: overcrowded with incident and insufficiently evocative of place. Still, this writer has created a memorable heroine, whose joys and sorrows she portrays with a passionate intensity.
A sense of vividness, a kind of larger-than-life hyperreality, may quite possibly have been what Dorit Rabinyan was aiming at in her novel, Persian Brides. Rabinyan transports us to a household in the Jewish section of a small village in Persia early in this century, and a rather peculiar household at that.
Miriam Hanoum's neighbors all consider her the worst and laziest housekeeper in the entire village. But she is also a great beauty, because she avoids scrubbing, cooking, cleaning, and all the tasks that roughen one's skin and dishevel one's appearance, and concentrates instead on covering herself and her daughters in costly oils and cosmetics. This paradox is the most amusing thing in the novel.
In her quest for vividness, Rabinyan stuffs her novel with pungent, graphic images: shrieks, wails, cacklings, and an endless parade of what seems like every bodily fluid or function imaginable. Indeed, the story seems to be little more than an excuse for all these colorful, noisy, odoriferous descriptions. There is very little in the way of a plot, and the narrative keeps circling back over the same events.
Outlandishness is heaped upon outlandishness: Miriam permanently stows her mother-in-law in a basket. Miriam's spoiled daughter, Flora, maintains her fleshy figure by gobbling down mountains of food, even while her heart aches with longing for the man she recently married, a shifty peddler who has impregnated her and disappeared.
The characters and their creator seem to revel in the squalor. So did the critics whose raves are quoted in the blurbs, which just might be a phenomenon even more bizarre than anything depicted in this book.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.