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Three first novels 

click to enlarge Liars and Saints
  • Liars and Saints

Family affairs

Liars and Saints
By Maile Meloy
(Scribner: New York) $24/ hardcover

Maile Meloy's economical first novel Liars and Saints covers 60 years, spans the North American continent, and recounts with elegant ease and verbal breeziness the comings and goings of a large, complicated family. (Meloy's first book was an acclaimed collection of short stories, Half in Love).

The Santerre family members are California Catholics, a label that doesn't just ornament the story. Mother Yvette meets father Teddy during World War II and they marry just after conceiving their oldest daughter Margot. A second daughter, Clarissa, is born just before Teddy flies off to serve in the Korean War.

The family abides in relative suburban bliss until Margot, now in high school, turns up pregnant by Mr. Tucker, the dance teacher at Sacred Harp. Yvette knows exactly what a devoted Catholic mother should do in such circumstances: she sends Margot off to visit relatives in France, concealing her pregnancy even from Teddy, then announces that she is pregnant with her third child and will spend the last half of her pregnancy in a convent. Jamie is born in France and Yvette is his mother thereafter.

Skip to the heady and indulgent '60s and '70s when Clarissa marries Ed and gives birth to Abby. Jamie, a teenager, loves to visit his older sister and brother-in-law where he can smoke pot freely and where he finds a soul mate in Abby.

Margot, childless and living in Baton Rouge with her adoring, ambitious husband, grows more and more distant from the family until Jamie discovers the truth about his lineage. From here, the novel packs enough drama to keep the reader turning pages at high speed.

Meloy's a wizard with dialogue, her main engine for character development. A grandchild, T.J., provides some of the book's sweetest moments, and Jamie is a memorable character rich with conflict and hard-earned wisdom. If there's a misstep, it's a sojourn to a desert town in New Mexico that feels like a convenient time- and space-making device rather than a legitimate plot turn. The characters there are more like caricatures, and unfortunately remain through the book's end.

Liars and Saints skillfully explores jealousy, propriety, family loyalty and the truths and untruths that endure through generations.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

click to enlarge Sleep Toward Heaven
  • Sleep Toward Heaven

Sleep Toward Heaven
By Amanda Eyre Ward
(MacAdam/Cage: San Francisco) $24/hardcover

L ife on Death Row is the central concern of this first novel by Amanda Eyre Ward, a regular contributor to the Independent's sister paper, the Austin Chronicle.

In Gatestown, Texas, Karen, a 29-year-old convicted murderer, awaits execution. Her Death Row block mates include Tiffany with the Farrah Fawcett hairdo, convicted of murdering her two little daughters; Veronica, a tough white-haired 64-year-old; and Jackie, who compulsively sews her way through the long days. They are awaiting the arrival of the Satan Killer, Sharleen Jones, age 19.

Alternating chapters and points of view with Karen and the Death Row inmates are Celia, an Austin librarian and the widow of Karen's victim Henry; and Franny, a disenchanted New York physician who comes to Gatestown to settle her deceased uncle's affairs. Celia is still in shock, obsessing over the details of her husband's death, compulsively shopping and having love affairs with strangers. Franny, reluctant to return to New York and her fiance, decides to take on some of her doctor-uncle's patients, including Karen, one of his charges at the prison clinic. Both Celia and Franny drink too much and their lives occasionally overlap at the local motel bar.

Karen, we soon learn, has AIDS and is quickly wasting away while her execution date nears. The question of whether justice is served by killing someone who is already dying colors the last chapters.

Ward is deft at fleshing out these characters, especially their loneliness and isolation. Sleep Toward Heaven could have made a very satisfying short story with its symmetry of plot and character. As a novel, it doesn't pack the emotional punch one would expect from this material. Still, it is an admirable first effort -- tight and tough, embarking on difficult and unfamiliar terrain.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

click to enlarge Long For This World
  • Long For This World

Long For This World
By Michael Byers
(Houghton Mifflin: New York) $24/hardcover

M ichael Byers' literary debut, the short story collection The Coast of Good Intentions, set off high expectations for what would come next from the young writer. Byers' first novel, Long For This World, more than suffices.

What's most impressive about the book is its uncanny maturity. Little wonder that Byers, delving into the world of medicine and genetics, chose to write about a congenital abnormality called Hickman syndrome, a disease that speeds children through the aging process mercilessly: "arthritis at ten, osteoporosis for the girls at eleven, straight into senility before hitting puberty, and death from heart failure and simple old age by nineteen at the very latest."

Dr. Henry Moss is a respectable 50-ish researcher with a picturesque family and a prosperous life. But Moss is devastated by the prospect of losing his patient William, a funny, smart 14-year-old whose wry perspective on the grotesqueries of Hickman provide heartbreaking good humor. When Dr. Moss examines a teen-age boy, Thomas, brother to a confirmed Hickman patient who is rapidly declining at age 3, he discovers that Thomas is the first "asymptomatic positive" in his research. Thomas possesses the genes that cause Hickman but produces an enzyme that keeps him from developing symptoms. In fact, Thomas, a perfect physical specimen, appears to have stopped developing altogether at puberty.

Moss must decide whether to extract the enzyme and test it, without proper research and development protocol, on the swiftly declining William.

The book's subplots revolve around Henry's family members and are less successful. Ilse, his wife, also a physician, is a European in dotcom boomtown Seattle, bored with her tedious administrative job. Daughter Sandra is a 6-foot-1 basketball star with an unsettling crush on Thomas. Son Darren, 14, is a normal kid who has become little more than an afterthought to Henry as he has become more and more attached to William. Byers writes extensively on these three lives, often to the point of tedium. We get play-by-plays of Sandra's dates and Ilsa's wanderings around the city on a Vespa. And we get numerous pages of pondering over the suicide of a neighbor, Saul, whom the family barely knew. None of this comes to much in the end and much of it should have been edited severely.

But the book soars when we're with Henry in the hospital, or in the lab, or at William's bedside. Byers' sense of wonder is contagious, as in this passage where Henry graciously allows William's mother to give her son the first injection of the Thomas enzyme:

"The fountain of youth, Henry thought. Applied intravenously, the AAV would travel through the bloodstream and find its way to the lungs; what happened from there was anyone's guess. It would multiply, possibly. It would have an effect, or it wouldn't. Together they were conspiring to send William on a trip into the unknown, and Henry, looking on, had the urge to call to the boy in the bed, to wish him well. Safe journey. Navigate by the stars. Head north to home. But he said nothing."

Concerned with the time we are allowed to live our lives, Long For This World is a lyrical, observant and frequently joyous journey into the medical frontier, imperfect in the author's all-consuming enthusiasm for all his characters but exhilarating in its love for humanity.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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