Tomes for the Tote bag

FOR those who feel too pressured to read much fiction throughout the rest of the year, summer brings the time and leisure to settle down on the beach or in the backyard and lose yourself in the world of a writer's imagination.

The new collection of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (Pantheon, 432 pp., $25) includes all the stories he has thus far written: those from his two previous collections ("Damballah" and "Fever"), plus 11 new ones under the heading "All Stories Are True."

Although most of Wideman's work is rooted in Homewood, the black section of his native Pittsburgh of which he writes so vividly and passionately, his range of style, form, and subject matter goes beyond that. "What He Saw" takes readers to a black township in South Africa, where a group of visiting journalists confront not only the violence and suffering they see, but questions about their own responsibility in choosing what to report.

"Hostages" ponders contemporary political issues and the value of human life. And "Surfiction" is a slyly entertaining parody of postmodern criticism in which Wideman mocks the antics of its high priests and his own previous susceptibility to them: "Which list," as he remarks at one point, "further discloses a startling coincidence or perhaps the making of a scandal - one man working both sides of the Atlantic as a writer and critic explaining and praising his fiction as he creates it: Barth Barthes Bart helme."

Still, the heart of this collection is Homewood, and the characters based on Wideman's family, friends, and neighbors. It's a tough, raunchy world of appealing little boys who too often grow up to be swaggering bad guys, whose misguided need to play out a role lands them in prison; a world of devoted, loving mothers and quietly dignified grandmothers who have lived through experiences too powerful to put into words. But Wideman puts it all into words: slangy, elegant, harsh, tender, funny, angry, and elo quent.

One book I looked forward to reading this summer was the new novel by the Nigerian-born writer Ben Okri, whose collection of short stories, "Stars of the New Curfew," made a powerful impression on me when I read it in the summer of 1989.

The Famished Road (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 500 pp., $22.50), winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction in 1991, is a novel of epic proportions about a little boy growing up amid the squalor, violence, poverty, and unquenchable vitality of a Nigerian village. Azaro, whose name is deliberately reminiscent of Lazarus, believes that he is a "spirit child" who can still remember the happy realm of immortality where souls are said to dwell before birth (a concept similar to the Platonic-Christian vis ion of the 17th-century poet Henry Vaughan's poem "The Retreat," beginning "Happy those early days! when I/ Shined in my angel infancy").

Remembering the peace and harmony of the spirit world makes Azaro more than usually prone to retreat from the misery of the particular earthly existence he has been born into. Yet, although he has several nearly fatal experiences even as an infant, something keeps pulling him back into the "real world" with all its hardships.

What Azaro, his parents, and the other villagers must continually confront is not so much the clash of two ways of life, traditional and modern, but a chaotic-seeming free-for-all, a struggle for existence amid an unpredictable atmosphere of superstition and knavery, repression and violence.

The development that takes place in this "developing nation" has little to do with true progress and a lot to do with rampant exploitation of nature and of people. Okri's image of a "famished road" is a symbol of brutalizing "progress" that seems to devour everything in its path.

Writing about people who are trapped in a cycle of misery is a tricky enterprise. The stories in "Stars of the New Curfew" - each distinct and self-sustaining as a star - avoided this problem by crystallizing different aspects of Nigerian life in a variety of different narratives.

The narrative of this novel, by contrast, is so repetitive as to dull one's attention. For all its considerable poetry, passion, and vision, "The Famished Road" wears the reader down by attrition.

MEG PEI'S first novel, Salaryman (Viking, 296 pp., $21), is much less ambitious in scope, but succeeds rather nicely in what it sets out to do. For her hero/narrator, Pei has chosen the seemingly unpromising figure of a middle-level Japanese corporate executive - the kind of efficient, dedicated, well-dressed, faceless businessman seen in hotels, airports, restaurants, and boardrooms the world over - and by telling his story, reveals the individual behind the facade.

Jun Shimada is 30 years old, married, with one child. He enjoys his work, its comforting routine, and the sense of accomplishment he derives from doing what is expected of him. His mother was a poor, hard-working noodle-shop cook; his father, a famous Mishima-like poet whose final grandiose gesture was to commit suicide with his latest mistress, a besotted girl of 15. It is perhaps no wonder that our hero, the child of poverty and instability, has happily embraced the security of working for the giant, w ell-run firm of Yamamoto.

Luckily - or unluckily? - for the Shimada family, Jun is fluent in the English language, which leads Mr. Yamamoto himself to offer him the not-to-be-refused-lightly opportunity to work in the company's New York office.

Right away this causes discord in Jun's domestic life: His wife, Taeko, is dismayed at the prospect of living in a foreign country and a city so infamous for its high crime rate. When the family actually comes to America, both husband and wife find themselves facing dilemmas and difficulties far more complex than even the reluctant Taeko had feared.

Pei tells this timely tale of a family beset by culture clash with a subtle and appealing blend of humor, pathos, and empathy. And in Jun Shimada, the neatly fitting cog in a well-oiled corporate machine, she has found the makings of a modern-day Everyman.

IN Cambridge (Alfred A. Knopf, 184 pp., $19), the West-Indian-born British writer Caryl Phillips takes readers back to the early 19th century when England was on the verge of abolishing slavery in its empire. The first and longest portion of this intelligently conceived, convincingly executed historical novel is narrated by a sharp-eyed English woman. Thirty-year-old Emily Cartwright is a "spinster" in the uncomfortable position of having a mind of her own without the power or position to act independent ly. She is being sent by her father to visit the sugar plantation he owns in the West Indies and report back to him on conditions there. She undertakes a dangerous voyage, which is really his responsibility, and must face on her return to England an arranged marriage to a much older man.

Emily arrives on the island in a state of vague sympathy for the exploited slaves and disapprobation for the coarse, greedy white men who exploit them. She is ethically opposed to the "institution" of slavery in the abstract, and further appalled by the cruelty she witnesses. Yet, as she becomes involved in island life, she begins to take on some views of its ruling class.

The story is climaxed by a confrontation between the plantation manager, a harsh but supposedly "fair" man who knows how to keep the slaves in line, and the dignified, courageous slave Cambridge. Born in Africa, where he is sold into slavery, this man, who will be called by several different names (including Cambridge) over the course of his tempestuous life, is the narrator of the novel's second part. He is sent as a young man to England, where he is Christianized, educated, and freed by his English own er. He trains to serve as a Christian missionary to his people in Africa. En route, he is captured by traders who sell him (again!) into slavery in the West Indies. To the local whites, this literate black Christian is a living refutation of the beliefs they find so convenient to hold.

Both Emily's and Cambridge's narratives convey an authentic sense of the historical period, although the author seems less successful in rendering the complex mentality of a man who has endured Cambridge's almost unimaginable life of contrasts. Phillips is on surer ground in his shrewd and sensitive portrait of Emily, the well-intentioned but misguided white woman who tries to rise above her circumstances, only to fall back into them. This is a polished, evocative novel that provides fascinating insights

into a significant time in history. But for all the heat inherent in its subject matter - slavery, miscegenation, cultural conflict, violence - it is a slightly chilly book, perhaps too careful and low-key to do full justice to the themes it tackles.

"These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man. Or they are at least - the warning stands - nothing more than the ramblings of a prematurely aged one." Bill Unwin, the narrator of Ever After, by the British novelist Graham Swift (Alfred A. Knopf, 276 pp., $21), has just come through an attempted suicide. He addresses the reader with the ironic detachment we would expect of a middle-aged academic. Yet the story he will tell is a profoundly moving one, with a resonance that is timeless.

Recuperating amid the sedate walls of the ancient university where, thanks to the influence of his wealthy stepfather, he has recently found a berth, Unwin has, in fact, two stories to unfold. One is the story of his own life and of the joys and sorrows that brought him to the point of suicide. The other is a research project he is working on: the life of a Victorian ancestor of his, Matthew Pearce, who suffered a classic Victorian crisis of faith on coming into contact with Lyell's geological studies an d Darwin's "Origin of Species."

Bill Unwin reconstructs Matthew's personality from the notebooks he left behind. The Victorian was a quiet, sensible man with both feet on the ground: a surveyor by profession, a man whose work "had nothing to do with risk and hazard; everything to do with stability and trust." In some ways, Matthew's unadventurous nature ought to have protected him from the agonies of religious doubt. Yet, in other ways, his stolid determination to get to the bottom of things, to be certain about what he believed, made compromise impossible for him, leading him to break with the wife he adored and to leave the bosom of his devoutly believing family.

Bill Unwin's own life story forms a delicate counterpoint to Matthew's. His childhood and youth in postwar Paris and London, and his position as son of a self-indulgent, glamorous mother and a father who died, apparently by his own hand under mysterious circumstances, fostered the young man's strong identification with Hamlet - especially when his mother married her adulterous lover shortly after her husband's death. But unlike the Prince of Denmark, the literary-minded Bill found a life of happiness and

fulfillment by falling in love with Ruth Vaughan, a struggling young actress, who went on to achieve fame and fortune.

Their marriage was better than an idyll: It was an exciting and joyful reality ended only by her death, which left Bill in the despair that led to his attempt at ending it all.

As Bill reads about the religious doubts that induced his Victorian ancestor to abandon his wife and family, he ponders the state of Matthew's heart, so different from his own. For Bill, love takes priority over doubt; materialism is no sounder a "basis" than spiritual faith: "...if the soul is a fiction, and it is all just a struggle for existence," he muses, "why do we ever reach beyond ourselves to the existence of others, not to say beyond existence itself? Why do we think of the dead? ... And if we do not have souls, why should we have these - feelings? These moments that rack and enrapture us and take us by storm. Why should things matter?"

The joy of love, the pain of loss, the ravages of time and restless thought, the consolations of art: Swift engages these age-old, perennially modern themes with freshness, restraint, and a sense of feelings too deep to be fully expressed in words. Yet, the well-chosen words and story of this beautifully written novel exemplify the power of literature to console, merely by expressing the "obvious" truths of the human condition.

ANITA BROOKNER'S fans know that few contemporary novelists can match her in chronicling the quiet desperation of genteel, upper-middle-class women who lack the courage - or the foolhardiness - to break out of the confining comforts that surround them.

Harriet, the protagonist of her most recent book, A Closed Eye (Random House, 263 pp., $21), is married while still young to a middle-aged businessman who her parents hope will "take care of" her. Marriage to Freddie Lytton provides Harriet with the hoped-for security, but leaves her with a yearning for passion, risk, and daring that takes the form of a secret obsession with the dashing, famously faithless husband of her best friend. Harriet's unsatisfied longing - not so much for Jack Peckham per se as for the different way of life he represents - finds another kind of vicarious fulfillment in nurturing the emerging personality of her daughter Imogen, a beautiful, imperious, arrogant child who seems destined to become the self-willed, demanding woman Harriet would like to have been: "I shall not discipline her ... I shall let her have her way. Why should she make do, politely, with second best? For once women have been trained in the ways of politeness they can make disastrous mistakes." Brookner poignant ly and chillingly captures the resentment and dissatisfactions beneath Harriet's placid, well-mannered facade and the feelings of entrapment it creates.

What Harriet fears is not that she is in danger "of succumbing to Jack - even supposing that he wanted her ... but of succumbing to self-knowledge, which she had now successfully kept at bay for half a lifetime." This world of attitudes, feelings, frustrations, and equally frustrating insights about one's limitations is the terrain Brookner has been exploring for at least a decade now, with a remarkable ability to discover fresh variations on these themes. Her gift for delineating hard-to-express nuances , for evoking the silent pains of her character's inner lives, enables her to write the kind of novels that even the brilliant imagination and intellect of her precursor, Virginia Woolf, never quite managed to produce.

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