A fine deli of family lore

Louise Erdrich's latest novel, in a break from her native American fiction, is inspired by the German side of her family. Ludwig Erdrich, a butcher who fought in the trenches during World War I, was her grandfather.

Stories rise from Louise Erdrich like smoke from a campfire. Over the past 20 years, starting with "Love Medicine," which won the National Book Critics Circle award, she's produced a series of captivating novels about native American life.

Her latest, "The Master Butchers Singing Club," bears only traces of that heritage, but its appeal stems from the same quality that makes her novels set on the Chippewa reservation so good. Despite her critical success, her sophisticated style, and her clear political interests, Erdrich never forgets that we're still hungry to be carried away by good stories.

"The Master Butcher" opens in the ashes of World War I. A German sniper named Fidelis has married his late friend's pregnant wife, an act of camaraderie that quickly deepens. Graced with an eerie stillness, he sets about the careful task of building a home and forgetting the horrors he saw and inflicted. "He moved from the dangerous quiet where he lived," Erdrich writes, "into the unacceptable knowledge that in spite of the dead weight of killed souls and what he'd learned in the last three years about the monstrous ground of existence and his own murderous efficiency, he was meant to love." Even far from the sacred land of her native Americans, Erdrich knows just how to hover between what's plain and what's extraordinary, building on the life of this common German rifleman a story of legendary proportions.

"Tons of power were behind his slightest gesture," but Fidelis's destiny is shaped as much by the tragedy of world war as by the wonder of sliced bread. Spotting a single piece sent from America one day, Fidelis decides he must immigrate to this land of invention. He packs his knives and a suitcase of "his father's miraculous smoked sausage" and sails for New York, planning to sell the deli goods to pay for a ticket to Seattle. By North Dakota, he's out of sausage, and so he and his family settle there. It's a perfect example of how Erdrich can celebrate the triviality that determines the vectors of our lives.

In the little town of Argus, N.D., Fidelis and his wife meet a young actress who's returned home to care for her father. To Delphine, Fidelis and Eva have the ideal family. But, frankly, the Osbournes would seem like the ideal family to her. She's living with a very sweet acrobat, but he has a somewhat limited set of skills. Erdrich explains that "Delphine soon found that balancing was really the only thing he could do. Literally, the only thing he could do."

After a few months performing together, she discovers that one of the things her partner is balancing is his sexual orientation, a predicament neither of them can understand in a culture that provides no way to fathom their devotion.

Unfortunately, she doesn't have much time to dwell on this problem because when she returns home to check up on her alcoholic father, she discovers a family of dead bodies in his cellar.

It's one of the many marvels of Erdrich's fiction that she can make all this simultaneously ridiculous and normal and horrible. She has such a great ear for the weird comedy of her characters' lives, but she never sacrifices them for laughs.

Delphine's father, a man so wasted by alcohol that he couldn't hear three people calling for help beneath the floor, eventually emerges as a person of great sensitivity. And in the strange union of Delphine and her gay partner, Erdrich explores the interlaced currents of romance, affection, and sexual attraction with remarkable tact and understanding.

The only steady influence in Delphine's life - despite her partner's celebrated balance - is her friendship with the butcher's wife, Eva. With awed appreciation that she never allows to slip into envy, Delphine eyes Eva's fine housekeeping, her four healthy sons, and especially her quiet, solid husband Fidelis. Eventually, she begins working for Eva in the butcher shop and raising the four boys, losing herself in a mountain of work and yet another "marriage" that allows her no sexual consummation.

With the charming rhythm of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Master Butcher" moves through the events of this town in small family moments carved into legend by the power of her remarkable voice: the battle of rival butchers carried out entirely through their respective dogs; the courtship of a female undertaker "who already knew the art of using makeup in the next life, as well as this one"; a dying woman's first airplane flight; the collapse of a boy's woodland hideaway. And what's more, Erdrich isn't afraid of loose ends or rough edges. The blurry periphery around these stories remains deliciously ambiguous.

Finding herself again and again a witness to tragedy or its nurse, Delphine "marvels how anyone lived at all, for any amount of time. Life was a precious feat of daring, she saw, improbable as Cyprian balancing, strange as a feast of slugs." To read a novel by Erdrich is to witness that daring feat, performed with the kind of elegance and grace that makes the sweep of one's own life seem a little more miraculous, too.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

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