Summer `Escapism,' Tuned In to Other Lives

FOR some people, summer reading means ``light'' reading. Escapism, after all, is the literary equivalent of a vacation. In a larger sense, almost all fiction could be seen as escapism, whether it is the fiction of fantasy, the fiction of glamour and adventure, or even the most down-to-earth, realistic kind of fiction, which has the power to take us out of ourselves by getting us absorbed in the lives of its characters. If we redefine the word escapism to include the positive values of freedom, imagination, and refreshment, it becomes easy to see why it can be so desirable to escape through fiction. Andrea De Carlo's novel ``Yucat'an,'' translated from the Italian by William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 213 pp., $21.95), promises - and delivers - just the sort of light diversion to pass a summer's day.

A famous film director, Dru Resnik, decides to make a movie based on the writings of Astor Camado, a reclusive author obsessed with Mexican mysticism. Accompanied by Dave, his loyal, somewhat envious assistant, and Nesbitt, a thick-skulled, but enthusiastic producer, Dru goes to meet Camado in Los Angeles. There he begins to receive mysterious messages telling him what to do. Camado disappears before long. The messages keep coming.

Irritated, bored, skeptical, yet tantalized, Dru and his entourage find themselves carrying out the arbitrary instructions - scrawled on scraps of paper or enunciated by a cool, distant-sounding voice on the telephone - of an entity called ``You.'' They are told to buy new clothes in particular colors, to meet a ``spiritual girl,'' to travel to Yucat'an: to go through experiences that will enable Dru to make this an important film.

Dru and his friends allow themselves to become involved in what may or may not be a wild-goose chase. Poised in a playfully ironic realm midway between satire and sympathy, De Carlo's tongue-in-cheek account of their peregrinations manages to keep us intrigued, just as his characters are intrigued by a mystery whose solution seems just out of sight.

It's a long way from the escapades of film folk to the grim lives of people trapped by poverty and bad marriages. Yet some writers have the power and imagination to lift stories of broken marriages, wife and child abuse, dysfunctional families, and mental illness into the realms of art.

Wife abuse is the subject of Merrill Joan Gerber's painfully graphic, powerful novel, ``King of the World'' (Wainscott, N.Y.: Pushcart Press, 276 pp., $18.95), winner of Pushcart's eighth annual Editors' Book Award. But in addition to portraying the obvious horrors, Gerber provides deep insights into the reasons a woman can find herself in love with such a man and into the mind of the man himself.

To Ginny, who has grown up burdened by a deformed spine and low self-esteem, handsome, charismatic Michael represents all the color and excitement of the world beyond her restricted, dull, respectable Jewish upbringing. She wants and needs him, and he, in a strange way, needs her.

Gerber, author of three previous novels and two story collections, manages to evoke all that is repellent, hateful, and crazy about Michael while maintaining a sense of what is pathetic, even sympathetic, about his frustration and suffering. Not for the faint of heart, ``King of the World'' is an immensely disturbing tour de force with an ending that provides a kind of catharsis of the violence leading up to it.

As a child growing up in a close-knit Mormon community in Utah, Verna Flake, the heroine of Judith Freeman's first novel, ``The Chinchilla Farm'' (N.Y.: Norton, 308 pp., $19.95) likes to visit a neighbor who raises the tiny, fur-bearing animals. Later, as her first marriage dissolves, Verna has good reason to recall the chinchillas, who mate only once and who languish alone if their mate dies. As she packs up her few belongings and heads for the uncertain goal of Los Angeles, her memories of a Mormon past mingle with her new adventures on the road. She picks up a hitchhiker, who resurfaces later among the homeless in Los Angeles's MacArthur Park, a poor, crime-plagued area where Verna settles after a brief, awkward stay with an old school friend turned Beverly Hills matron.

This is a beautifully written, quietly humorous, affectingly realistic novel that captures the feel of the West: its landscapes, its distances, its vibrant mix of cultures, its deserts - spiritual and physical - and its cities full of uprooted people longing for the chance to make a fresh beginning, yet nostalgic for the ever-more-distant idea of home.

Originally published in 1957, ``Behind the Curtains,'' (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 279 pp., $30) the prize-winning first novel by the Spanish writer Carmen Mart'in Gaite, offers a glimpse into the restricted lives of a circle of young women in a provincial town in Franco's Spain.

As her older sisters and her schoolmates settle into their assigned roles, clever, childish, 16-year-old Natalia passively resists the tide, hoping to persuade her father to allow her to realize her dream of studying at the university.

Translated into English by Frances M. L'opez-Morillas, Mart'in Gaite's novel has obvious relevance as a feminist text: It not only shows how young women are pressured to conform by their families and communities, but also depicts how the girls themselves internalize the confining social code. The author's attempts at group portraiture dissipate some of the story's force by dividing the reader's attention among too many characters who are not vividly drawn enough to remain distinct in our minds. But the total effect is touching and memorable: a series of freeze-frames of young lives arrested by the passage from childhood's freedom to the stultifying roles laid out for them as eligible maidens, fianc'ees, brides, and wives.

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