Gotta Start Somewhere 

Debut fiction about diamonds, pianos, and more.

Perma Red
By Debra Magpie Earling
BlueHen (2002), $24.95
Life is brutal on the Flathead Indian Reservation - not muscular-brutal, though there is plenty of that, but brutal in the way that time waits for no one to catch up. As a young girl, Louise White Elk is singled out, not because she wishes to be, but because she is beautiful. Everyone wants to save her: from being an Indian, from godlessness, from her own desperate struggle to become her own person. Early on, Louise realizes that being saved means being possessed by saviors who wish mostly to save themselves. Debra Magpie Earling parachutes readers into a world of searing poverty in which, as a child in the 1940s, Louise moves between her grandmother's shack and the nuns' school, trying to avoid Baptiste Yellow Knife, who knows too many things without being told. Gradually, as Louise grows, more is revealed, much of it harrowing, much starkly beautiful. The sections written in Louise's third-person voice are as lyrical as they are disturbing, the sections in police officer Charlie Kicking Woman's first-person voice jarringly less interesting. Earling explores familiar conflicts: her resolutions are less familiar as she adds in characters and drama until a bleak landscape is almost unbearably packed with pulsing desires. This debut has its weak points - Earling sometimes mistakes repetition for rhythm - but the universe she has created is both unforgettable and all-encompassing.
- Linnea Due

Jewelry Talks
By Richard Klein
Vintage (2002), $13
Klein teaches 18th-century French literature at Cornell, and "novel" defines this first fictional effort by the author of Cigarettes Are Sublime and Eat Fat in more ways than one. First, there's the format: It's a thesis on the history of jewelry interwoven with a memoir that includes keen observations on culture and fashion along with bitchy gossip about the likes of Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Taylor, and Princess Diana. Then there's the protagonist: Abby Zinzo, who was born a man but declares, "I've been looking for a masculinity that isn't male. To find it, I figured, I first had to try to become a woman." Not wishing to give up the family jewels (so to speak), Abby eschews surgery and wears women's clothes, draping himself in jewelry because his femininity "isn't phallic, the way it is with most transvestites; it's rather more cosmic than cosmetic." After quitting Harvard, disgusted at "the vanities it inflates," he moved to Paris, where he worked in a drag show until he met Amad, who courted Abby by throwing jewelry at him in the street and who, ironically, was born a woman but lived as a man (although, like Abby, Amad avoided the knife). Obviously, this is not your average lounge-by-the-pool summer read, and Klein gets bogged down a bit in the historical aspects of adornment. Yet his prose is as brilliant as the gems he discusses, and he forces the reader to examine gender in its simplest - and therefore purest - forms.
- Vicki Cameron

The Piano Tuner
By Daniel Mason
Knopf (2002), $24
In 1886, London piano-tuner Edgar Drake is summoned by the British War Office to tune a rare instrument in the jungles of Burma. Its owner, Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, is a polymath who "finds song in responsibility" and whose success at soothing the rebellious Shan states suggests that nations might reach peace through the sharing of art, medicine, and music. After Edgar arrives, a group of drunken soldiers tells him how the surgeon-major, instead of reaching for his rifle in a confrontation with Shan warriors, once pulled out a flute and played a Shan love song. The warriors lowered their bows and arrows, listening to Carroll play the tune over and over again. Mason supplements such romantic episodes, myths, malaria-induced hallucinations, and dreams with vivid village life, violent deaths, and a stormy jailbreak. The story (often told by the characters themselves) is full of mystery: like Edgar, the reader wonders what's real and who's being duped. Meanwhile, Mason's sensuous descriptions, José Saramago-inspired seamless dialogue, and authentic details of history, topography, myth, and music infuse this debut effort with a feeling of immediacy. In the end, we realize that imagination and mystery are as important as "truth" - whatever, in fact, that might be.
- Eliza Wilmerding

Leviathan with a Hook
by Kimberly Johnson
Persea (2002), $23
The very virtuosity of this debut poetry collection provokes the question: How can such impressive writing be so unseductive, even off-putting? The short answer is: Blame ego and unassimilated influence. Considering Johnson's sensuous, musical language, that jab might sound mean. Her intense fondness for both world and words is evident in her allusions to and emulation of Milton, the Metaphysical poets, and others. She has a knack for alliteration and slant rhymes that effectively invoke and evoke nature, as in: "Severe the light, and in the ether/rough weather settles." Even the archaic syntactical inversions often serve an emphatic purpose. But used repeatedly, almost formulaically, these devices suggest pastiche - despite the dust jacket's assertion that the poetry is "[i]nformed by, though never dependent on, a host of inspirational sources." The pastoral and the quaint are forced to the point of sounding precious. Johnson does allude to this trait, in a portrayal of mourning doves and of herself, but this self-conscious device doesn't adequately address the problem: "But don't I write them frowzy and askance/and don't I frame myself in sable eye." Indeed, she does. However, that awareness, combined with her genuine gift for language, at least indicates a potential to write her way free of such cloying limitations.
- Alexandra Yurkovsky

Mermaids on the Moon
By Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Doubleday (2002), $21.95
Elizabeth Stuckey-French teaches fiction writing at Florida State University, so it's no surprise that she paints a visceral portrait of the Sunshine State. What is surprising, given her curriculum, is that much of Mermaids on the Moon is one big expository tangle. It takes approximately four chapters before the reader is allowed to just be there in the present moment, when France, a schlumpy, middle-aged art-gallery employee, discovers that her mother, Grendy - a veteran performer in the Mermaid Springs underwater girlie show and now set to appear in a Mermaids of Yesteryear revival - has run off, leaving friends and family in the lurch. In a flurry of characters and flashbacks, France searches for her mother. Stuckey-French does such an excellent job of creating a very real Florida that it soon seems as exotic a locale as the moon, on which, ironically, the latest Mermaids of Yesteryear program is set. The vital, athletic sixtysomething veteran Mermaids in this novel are a marvel: distinctly drawn characters, none of whom have let age force them to give up their youthful coquettishness and exuberance. It is their actions, their shifting loyalties, and selective memories of the original mermaid shows that lend this story real meat and mystery. But a longer novel than this would have made for a wilder ride, giving ample time to explore situations and characters, and rendering France's ultimate redemption more believable. Instead, we get a breezy trifle that ultimately feels like a too-quick visit to a run-down theme park.
- Stefanie Kalem

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