A lush first novel full of fire and force

Lady's Time, by Alan V. Hewat. New York: Harper & Row. 338 pp. $16.95. This impressive first novel memorably depicts a world seldom explored by American novelists since the lush, dense romances of George Washington Cable in the late 19th century. Set in a compellingly real New Orleans, and also in the fictional resort town of Sand Springs, Vt., between the years 1887 and 1919, it concerns the fate of ``Lady'' Winslow, a light-skinned Negro woman who supports herself and her son Leon as a piano player at Sand Springs' Sequantus Inn and teacher to its citizens' childre n.

There's a starkly dramatic opening episode: Leon falls through the ice of a frozen lake, dies, and is recalled to life by Lady's recourse to voodoo spirits with which she became familiar during her childhood in New Orleans. Hints of her earlier life follow, and also intimations of someone or something pursuing her.

A flashback section ensues: It's a picture of Lady's early life as Alice Beaudette, daughter of ``washerwoman and seamstress'' Mimi Beaudette, and beneficiary of the musical skills taught to her by Mimi's husband-to-be, a celebrated ``tickler'' (piano player) in the local brothels and saloons.

``New Orleans then [in the 1890s] was a dream city,'' writes the author, who offers a glowingly detailed description of the lusty wonderland young Alice discovers. It's a land filled with street vendors and beggars, ``conjure women'' and healers, and malevolent strangers -- one of whom, the zombielike ``Trueheart'' (a.k.a. Obregon Vraicoeur), becomes a personal demon troubling the peace of Mimi and her daughter alike.

Alice succeeds her mentor as tickler at Countess Eulalie's Welcome Mansion, a ``house of joy'' where she's dubbed ``Little Lady'' and given ``a special and protected position.'' But nothing protects Lady from the reappearing figure of Trueheart (whose motives are best not revealed here) -- and the journey to Sand Springs is a terrified flight from the ``vengeance'' he threatens.

The story's extended conclusion describes, from Leon's retrospective viewpoint, Lady's Northern peregrinations, the new life she made for them both in Vermont, and the nemesis that eventually found her. Its final pages seem slightly crowded; Mr. Hewat is laying the groundwork for this novel's promised sequel (the last words are Leon's ``I had to find a sound of my own, and my own time''), and he doesn't quite convincingly emphasize Lady's experiences as much as I expect we'd like him to.

That is virtually my only strong reservation about ``Lady's Time,'' which abounds with excellences well beyond the usual first novelist's reach. The cavalcade of arresting characters includes real-life jazz musicians Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, street people like the blind beggar Jibba and the seer ``Old Patanouche'' (who ``traveled constantly back and forth between the present world and the world of the spirits''), and, perhaps best of all, the Rabelaisian madam Countess Eulalie and her ``cadav erous'' major-domo, Mr. Strap.

Hewat's images of bygone New Orleans have marvelous fire and force; in particular, his extended description of a neighborhood celebration on ``the evening of the new century'' -- astonishingly detailed, funny, and ominously atmospheric -- seems to me one of the great bravura passages in recent American writing.

He beautifully captures the mysterious appeal of the music that surrounds Alice Beaudette and becomes her life's center (until her son Leon) -- and convincingly imputes to the music magical protective qualities (when Lady senses Trueheart stalking her, it's the tune she plays that ``measures'' his closeness to her).

The novel also powerfully dramatizes both racial and sexual injustice and violence. The long inset story of how the Creole Vraicoeur family is victimized by ``the Race Laws of New Orleans'' provides both a splendid miniature and a persuasive explanation of Trueheart's murderous persistence. And the tales of men's rage against women told by Countess Eulalie's ``little birds'' give Alice an insight into ``her own vulnerability in the world.''

It may be argued that Lady is too much a victim, that we know little of her beyond her ``attributes of charm and loveliness'' and her sophisticated musicianly demeanor (``she never improvised or raged and she certainly never stomped''). But I found her a vivid and fascinating character, even if not a fully rendered one.

There's a wonderful legendary and mythic feel and weight to this story; its perfectly realized milieu and complicated interweaving of spells and charms and tall tales, together with serious social criticism and historical import, endow it with irresistible narrative drive and thematic consequence. It's one of the year's very best books.

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