BOOKS

A trio of conjurers

BREATHING LESSONS By Anne Tyler THE TRUTH ABOUT LORIN JONES By Alison Lurie TRACKS By Louise Erdrich

DARLENE JAMES October 10 1988
BOOKS

A trio of conjurers

BREATHING LESSONS By Anne Tyler THE TRUTH ABOUT LORIN JONES By Alison Lurie TRACKS By Louise Erdrich

DARLENE JAMES October 10 1988

A trio of conjurers

BOOKS

New novels portray enduring characters

BREATHING LESSONS By Anne Tyler THE TRUTH ABOUT LORIN JONES By Alison Lurie TRACKS By Louise Erdrich

Although plot and setting are important, the ability to turn printed words into real people is what lies at the heart of the novelist’s craft. The characters need not be admirable but they must be believable. In new novels this fall, three ac-

claimed American authors create some memorable protagonists. Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie and Louise Erdrich all return to familiar territory and people in their new books but they are not uniformly successful at giving their characters true depth.

U.S. authors Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie and Louise Erdrich return to familiar terrain and people

Most of Tyler’s works, which include 1982’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and 1985’s The Accidental Tourist, feature Baltimore settings and domestic themes, as well as the quirky idiosyncrasies that both chafe and bind people within families. The bare-bones story in Tyler’s 11th novel, Breathing Lessons, is deceptively undramatic. Maggie and Ira Moran of Baltimore, 28 years married, drive 90 miles to attend the funeral of an old friend, and then return home again. In the process, Maggie ponders her marriage and attempts to reunite a family that seems determined to disintegrate. Around those prosaic concerns, the author constructs a rainbow of interpersonal encounters in which Maggie is the dominant hue.

Tyler writes that Maggie is forever “collecting strays who stuck to her like lint and

falling into heart-to-heart talks with total strangers.” Meanwhile, her daughter, Daisy, is a bit of a stranger to her. The teenage girl is an uncommonly precise and focused individual: Tyler cites her “uncannily well-ordered room and a sheaf of color-coded notebooks for her homework.” College-bound Daisy looks down on Maggie, who since high school has worked quite contentedly as an aide in an old-people’s home. The girl once asked her mother, “Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”

Ira, too, is a disappointment to his offspring, and perhaps to himself. A former medical-school candidate who got sidetracked into taking over his father’s picture-framing business, he sees himself through the eyes of his son, Jesse, as a “generic figure called The Shopkeeper; a drab and obsequious man of indeterminate age.” Still, it is Maggie and Ira who mesmerize fellow supermarket shoppers by singing a duet to the accompaniment of

One writer describes the struggle of natives to preserve their ancestral tribes and culture

Muzak—and who get tossed out of the funeral wake for making love, to their own great surprise, in the widow’s bedroom.

While Tyler’s portraits of ordinary working-class families are rich and warm, combining gentle delight with gritty detail, Lurie uses a cool and distant voice to describe the academics and art-scene inhabitants of her new book. The Truth about Lorin Jones focuses on art historian Polly Alter, a character who is aptly named: Lurie presents her as a kind of parrot whose thoughts echo those of others—primarily a group of radical-feminist lesbians who adopt her when she is suffering the trauma of a broken marriage.

A failed painter, Polly immerses herself in research for a biography of an enigmatic female artist whose last years are cloaked in mystery. Polly begins her sleuthing with a clear bias: she believes that the painter’s disappearance from the art world came about at the hands of the men in her life. Yet it is those very men—dealers, gallery owners, a lover, an ex-husband—whom Polly must interview in the course of her research. It is a distasteful task for one who is committed to having as little as possible to do with males.

Puzzled by the conflicting views of the artist offered by her sources—they call her “Laura,” “Laurie,” “Lolly” and “Lorin,” and each of those names seems to designate a different personality—Polly is alternately infatuated, haunted and then alienated by the woman she is trying to piece together. The

quest for Jones’s true identity reflects Polly’s parallel struggle to clarify her own, especially in the arena of sexual preference. Despite her intellectual convictions and her friends’ persuasions, Polly finds her “old ignorant desire for the Romantic Hero recurring like some persistent weed .... There ought to be an organization for it, Heterosexuals Anonymous, it could be called, and when the urge came over you, you’d telephone their hotline and some nice woman would talk to you until you felt better.”

Lurie’s seven previous novels, including 1974’s The War Between the Tates and 1984’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs, have been lauded for witty insight into the world of academe. The premises underlying The Truth About Lorin Jones could have made an effective vehicle for a writer of her stature. However, Polly never seems more than a caricature—she might as well wear a T-shirt proclaiming “Brainwashed by feminism.” Just as Polly is unable to cobble together the disparate pieces of Lorin Jones into an integrated whole, so Lurie falls short of making the reader believe that Polly herself is real.

By contrast, the characters in Erdrich’s latest novel throb with life. Tracks is set in the years 1912 to 1924, making it the narrative forerunner to Erdrich’s earlier best-sellers, 1984’s Love Medicine and 1986’s The Beet Queen. The author, who is of both German and Chippewa Indian descent, creates first-person narrators who weave a powerful tale of love, survival and vengeance. It is set in a time when native people in North Dakota were struggling to preserve what was left of their ancestral tribes and culture. “Our tribe unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either end as the old and new among us were taken,” recounts Nanapush, a tribal elder telling his granddaughter, Lulu, of the days when tuberculosis decimated his clan. Disease was not the sole predator, according to Nanapush. “Our trouble came from living, from liquor and the dollar bill,” he says. “We stumbled toward the government bait, never looking down, never noticing how the land was snatched from under us at every step.”

A counterpoint to the voice of Nanapush is that of Pauline Puyat, a mixed-blood woman torn between the old ways and the new. In her psyche, Misshepeshu, god of the lake, vies for attention with the martyred saints of the Catholic church. Homely Pauline, who sees herself as being “devious and holy, dangerously meek and mild,” chooses convent life and indulges in secret rituals of deprivation.

From those opposing perspectives, Erdrich describes the band’s daily life Tn the community with potency and poetic clarity. And she has created an extraordinary collection of characters who are at once enduring metaphors and as real and warm as blood. Like Tyler’s, her fictional people live on in the imagination—a true test of the storyteller’s art.

DARLENE JAMES