Brief Reviews

by Brooke Kroeger. Times Books, 496 pages, $30.00.

The author is a South African, a member of one of the old Boer families counted as European despite a remote bit of African ancestry. He was a member of the exiled African National Congress in Paris and served seven years in prison after he was caught back in Africa in 1975. His moving memoir of a trip to his homeland combines lyrical descriptions of a fiercely beautiful country, sketches of the varied people he met as he searched for his family history, and bitter disappointment over the crime and poverty that flourish in the new South Africa. The semi-rural area in which Mr. Breytenbach grew up still has a frontier quality. At a local wedding where "the house is crowded with quietly drinking and seriously cursing people, the father of the bride and his two sons ask the guests to stand out of the way, you damned lot of devil's offspring, and then knock down with crowbar and sledgehammer the wall between two rooms to make a place for dancing." This offhand hospitality is countered by pages of gruesome detail of rapes and murders, which are frequent and rarely punished. The author's brother, who still lives in the region, "fights the baboons, the geckos, the starlings, the snakes, the crickets, the frogs, the ants, the plant lice and the neighborhood's mongrels.... He will go down fighting. He has foreseen that things will come down to this. One should have no illusions about life." Mr. Breytenbach did have illusions, and going home again shattered many of them.

The heroine and narrator of Ms. Redd's novel leaves her alcoholic husband and takes refuge at her place of employment -- the local university, where she works as a tutor in the male athletic department. Her job is to boost and bully ballplayers into a passable semblance of academic achievement. Her charges are officially "student-athletes." Privately they are her "thugs" or her "babies," depending on their current level of misbehavior. Ms. Redd gives the whole ludicrous and hypocritical college athletic system an amusing send-up. She also gives much space to her heroine's complaints of sexual deprivation and inattentive parents. (Her father is a work-obsessed surgeon and her mother is a tomato-obsessed gardener.) The complaints become repetitious. The ballplayers are steadily surprising, and the narrator's balancing act between sympathetic big sister and snarling drill sergeant is consistently interesting. There is, by the way, a plot that eventually merges the novel's two lines of development.

Ms. Staffel's intricately constructed novel is set in a decaying town in upstate New York. The place, with its failed businesses and abandoned farms, is solidly evoked. The principal characters, in contrast, are fluid rather than solid, transitory rather than rooted. They are all misfits in the place, people a bit out of kilter, and how they collide and support one another is the substance of the tale. It is a striking piece of work.

Mr. Coombe opens his account of "The Last Major Naval Campaigns of the Civil War" with a broadside of compressed information that may leave the reader slightly stunned. This is background material, providing context for the much more expansive accounts of battles from Pensacola to Galveston. New Orleans and Mobile Bay are given the most space, but lesser actions are not neglected. Mr. Coombe makes fine use of those anecdotes and details that turn up in Civil War records. A Confederate doctor, waiting for the Union attack on Mobile, amused himself with a fig tree and a stray cat, while a private in the same spot was "sick and tired of garrison life and Fort Morgan." At New Orleans, Admiral David Farragut ordered fire on "that rascally tug" and admonished a crouching officer, "This is no time for prayer." Signal Officer Osbon was not praying; he was about to deal effectively with a fire raft. Even Farragut could err. The author considers him a great and innovative commander whose tactics remained useful in the Pacific during the Second World War. Mr. Coombe is a veteran of that war, having served at Guadalcanal and Midway. He brings his own experience to bear on the Civil War navies, because "the basic concepts of warfare and the psychological impacts on the crews who man these fighting machines have not changed through the decades." It is an effective approach to history. The reader can feel the buildup of heat inside an ironclad and the chill when the deck crews stored "buckets of sand around the gun stations, lest the gunners' feet slip on blood. It was a necessary ritual that all gunners abhorred."

Fannie Hurst habitually lied about her age, but probably was born in 1885 and lived to be eighty-two. Her home town was St. Louis, and her parents, comfortably assimilated German Jews, expected her to stay there and marry a prosperous man of their own class and kind. She escaped to New York and by 1914 had been published in Cosmopolitan and was on the way to a long career as a highly popular and lavishly paid writer of fiction. Her work was often disparaged as "women's fiction," and she was reproached for overwriting and sentimentality, but readers loved it, and with good reason. She wrote about the concerns of ordinary young women -- jobs, money, ambitions, social status, overbearing parents, unsuitable men -- and if her language was sometimes overblown, she kept the problems real and the plots intriguing. She did a number of things besides write, becoming a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and of Rebecca West, lending a hand in political campaigns, and offering opinions on practically everything in sight. Ms. Kroeger reconstructs Hurst's life in great detail, along with the plots of stories and the casts of the films based on them, and, more interesting, gives a thorough explanation of the rivalries and piracies of magazine editors in the days when reading was the only entertainment regularly and widely available.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power in the Second Nuclear Age This book grew out of "America's Maginot Line," an article by Paul Bracken that appeared in the December, 1998, Atlantic.

Phoebe-Lou Adams is The Atlantic Monthly's staff writer.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Brief Reviews - 99.09; Volume 284, No. 3; page 105-106.