M A R C H 1 9 9 5
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
In the Place of Fallen Leaves
by Tim Pears.
Donald I. Fine, 310 pages, $21.95.
The official narrator of this amiably attractive novel is Alison, the youngest
child of farmers in a remote valley of Devonshire. The family is large,
universally eccentric, and more prosperous than the thirteen-year-old girl
realizes. During the fiercely hot, dry summer of 1984 Alison observes her
relatives, all of whom, in their separate ways, turn even odder than usual. So
does she. So does the rector. So, in the background, does the whole village. In
addition to Alison, and improbably pretending to be Alison, is an omniscient
third-person narrator who reports what the girl neither sees nor could
understand. The arrangement works because the transitions are smoothly made and
permit the inclusion of such matters as the traditional hostility of the local
farmers to the local viscount and the theological problems of the rector, all
of which contribute to the liveliness and quirkiness of the action. The novel
is very active indeed, both in the past of brawls and a quarry flood and in the
present, where Alison and the viscount's son harmlessly haunt the quarry pool
and less harmlessly investigate a barn. By the end of the summer everything has
changed for Alison except her sense of a family solidarity that will continue
into the future as it has lasted through its long past. Mr. Pears's writing is
graceful, sometimes lyrical, often amusing, and always engaging.
by Romesh Gunesekera.
The New Press, 144 pages, $20.00.
Triton, the novel's first-person protagonist, is eleven years old when his
uncle turns him over to Mister Salgado, "a real gentleman," to do "whatever the
hell he tells you." The place is Sri Lanka, wavering between traditional
placidity and political uproar. Triton dutifully learns to please his kindly
employer, becoming the ideal houseboy-cook, totally devoted to the well-being
of Mister Salgado. Aside from cooking, which he does superbly, and keeping the
mildly decrepit establishment in order, Triton's only interests are admiration
for the beauty of his island and every book he can lay hands on. His only
sympathies are with the affairs of Mister Salgado and his circle. Triton should
be dull, but Mr. Gunesekera's skill makes the young man's narrow view
revealing, by implication, of a disintegrating society, and his sometimes
imaginative notions worth respect. The tale has a touch of magic in it, and the
descriptions of lush Sri Lankan scenery are delightful.
A Way Through the Wilderness
by William C. Davis.
HarperCollins, 400 pages, $30.00.
Mr. Davis's history of the Natchez Trace and the southern
frontier abounds in anecdote--some of dubious provenance--and practical detail. One learns who
operated early inns and where, what their prices were, and which provided the
worst accommodations and the least-edible food. One learns that the first
official road, replacing Indian trails, ran well behind schedule and well over
the projected cost. One encounters Indians both friendly and hostile and a
traveler who, lavishly entertained with dishes almost entirely composed of
variations on the sweet potato, went to bed on a mattress stuffed with
sweet-potato vines and dreamed "that we had turned into a big potato, and that
some one was digging us up."Mr. Davis has assembled a fine hodgepodge of
information, some serious, some trivial, some exotic. What he has not done is
offer any clue as to how the prices he quotes compared with those current in
longer-settled areas, or how money values of the early nineteenth century
compare with those of today. A financially minded reader must resort to a
personal computer for that sort of thing. Those content with wild characters,
tall tales, shipping traffic on the Mississippi, and southern politics can
forge happily ahead on their own.
by Salman Rushdie.
Pantheon, 224 pages, $21.00.
Set in the East, the West, or where the twain uncomfortably
meet, Mr. Rushdie's short stories expertly accomplish what the author intends to have them do, from
arousing a chuckle to chilling a spine.
The Notorious Life of Gyp: Right-Wing Anarchist in Fin-de-Siecle France
by Willa Z. Silverman.
Oxford, 352 pages, $27.50.
When a French aristocrat of the nineteenth century found
herself encumbered with an uncongenial and improvident husband, one permissible recourse was the
pen. Marie de Gonneville, first separated from her husband, Arundel-Joseph,
last of the Mirabeau counts, and then widowed by that clumsy nobleman, turned
to novel writing with some success. Her one child, whose name ultimately became
Sibylle-Gabrielle Marie-Antoinette de Riquetti de Mirabeau, comtesse de Martel
de Janville, did the same with immense success. She signed herself "Gyp,"
pretended to be an army officer with a satirical view of fashionable society,
perfected (if she did not entirely invent) the enfant terrible as narrator in
the persona of Petit Bob (who also drew caricatures), and aroused social
disapproval, political excitement, and the respect of Henry James (whose
admiration may have come from Gyp's ability to tell a tale fast and entirely
through dialogue --things he could not do). She was an altogether remarkable
woman, a combination of fanatical nationalist and right-wing anarchist, capable
of recruiting a mob and of informing a court that her profession was
"Anti-Semite,"which was at least partly true. Her influence during the Dreyfus
Affair was pernicious. She died in 1932, aged eighty-three, and was projecting
a new book as late as 1930. Ms. Silverman has written an admirable biography of
this enormously productive and frequently inconsistent author, offering
reasonable explanations for Gyp's attitudes and opinions and providing a sound
re-creation of the society that she inhabited, entertained, and disturbed.
Charles M. Russell: Sculptor
by Rick Stewart.
Amon Carter Museum/Abrams, 400 pages, $95.00.
Mr. Stewart is the curator of western painting and
sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum, but his study of Russell's sculpture extends far beyond the museum's
collection. He begins with a brisk, well-written account of Russell's
picturesque career, proceeds to the intricacies of settling the artist's estate
and that of his devoted and stubborn widow, and concludes with a survey of all
known Russell works, including the unauthorized and even fake pieces that
appeared after Nancy Russell's death. Anyone who hopes to buy a Russell bronze
should take warning from that final section. The range is booby-trapped.
Noncollectors can simply enjoy the photographs of the muscular, evocative Old
West figures that Russell created, not only in bronze but out of "wax, wood,
string, hemp, paint," with the occasional incorporation of wire, pins, tacks,
or anything else that came to hand. The contents of the toolbox with which
Russell was working at the time of his death included (besides eight modeling
tools) wire, thread, glue, two tin spoons, a handleless china cup, a dozen
other oddments, and "1 pair old Black Silk Gloves Tied Together." Along with
his gifts as a painter, a sculptor, and an author, Russell was an uninhibited
master of mixed media.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.