No man - or writer - is an island

A failed writer and father seeks redemption

Everything you Need By A.L. Kennedy Alfred A. Knopf 543 pp., $25.95

How quietly, how quickly A.L. Kennedy has taken a place in the pantheon of contemporary novelists. In America, she remains something of a treasured secret, but in Britain, this 36-year-old Scottish woman has already racked up a half dozen impressive awards. She's even served as a juror for the Booker Prize.

Her latest novel, "Everything You Need," is unlikely to change her position on this side of the Atlantic. It's marvelous and horrendous, full of extraordinary insight and sensitivity, but burdened with enough depravity to repel the larger audience she would otherwise attract.

This strikingly odd story revolves around two related activities: writing and parenting, sources of mingled pleasure and despair for Nathan Staples. We meet him during a bungled suicide attempt, a calamity that leaves him depressed and rope-burned. He's a misanthropic pulp novelist, who hasn't written anything good since his wife ran off and took their little girl 15 years ago.

Despite his episode with the noose, he's finally figured out a way to see his daughter, and possibly even be a parent again. Mary Lamb is now 19 and an aspiring writer. She thinks her father died long ago, but Nathan has secretly arranged for her to win a seven-year scholarship to study on Foal Island, a writer's colony off the coast of Wales.

This commune is one of the many marvels that fans relish about Kennedy's inventive fiction. The Foal Island Fellowship floats just shy of ludicrous. Nathan and six other strange writers live on their "rain-asphyxiated" island alone, enduring each other and the equally unpredictable weather.

Their gentle leader encourages them in a vaguely defined mystical tradition that involves "facing extreme risk" seven times. They scoff at his quirky idealism even while engineering brutal acts of self-destruction. (Mary stays in the house of a past member who cut off his head and hands with a circular saw.)

These tortured souls wear the scars of a writer's life on their sleeves - and minds and bodies. They're people who understand Red Smith's famous observation that "writing is easy. Just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein."

They come together for monthly business meetings marked by the kind of profane acrimony only professional writers (or smart sailors) could articulate. But after each bruising battle, they retire for Quaker-like sessions of communal meditation.

It's difficult to imagine why a normal 19-year-old woman would leave her loved ones for seven years to study with this group of grotesque misfits. And it's difficult to imagine why Nathan tutors his daughter for seven years without getting up the courage to tell her who he is. But that's why we need a novelist as good as Kennedy to imagine these wonderful things for us.

Mary Lamb's seven years pass in a leisurely series of anecdotes and conversations over more than 500 pages that are hilarious except when they're heart-breaking. Kennedy writes in a syncopated style that's perpetually surprising, mingling her own voice with the internal and spoken voices of her characters. (Even Nathan's big-hearted dog jumps into the mix now and then.) This is a novelist of extraordinary emotional breadth, as willing to be sweet and sentimental as she is to be coarse and repellent.

While Mary struggles under her father's alternatively irascible and affectionate instruction, we read selected chapters from his autobiography, a secret labor of love that illustrates his failings as a parent and implicitly begs for forgiveness. Kennedy celebrates fatherhood in all its wonder, but she can also clear your head with the blank terror of loving a child so much.

Early in her sojourn on the island, one of the writers tells Mary, "You are willing and - if you think about it - volunteering yourself to take charge of the medium that governs and lies, that defines and dreams and prays, that witnesses truth and condemns to death. And, naturally, such a large thing will take charge of you. It will give you appetites you've never known."

Nathan knows the cost of devoting one's life to writing, a craft that simultaneously cures and exacerbates loneliness. Seeing his daughter lit with the same passion and beginning to make the same sacrifices excites his pride and frightens him. His Zen-like writing advice is pretty thin (Rule #3: Disregard all praise and criticism), but as a story about a life of words, "Everything You Need" is literally everything you need.

The publishing industry receives a particularly brutal rebuke from J.D. Grace, Nathan's droll and "forensically compelling" editor in London. He's a repulsive character, dying from a host of illnesses and self-inflicted wounds. The despair he feels about the poor condition of publishing reflects in his own increasingly depraved behavior, rendered here in shockingly explicit detail.

Such is Kennedy's thematic universe, an utterly original mixture of wit and tragedy, ordinary and bizarre, outrageous and sweet. That's enough.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor,

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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