By Bharati Mukherjee (HarperCollins, 240 pages, $27)
There are plenty of books and films, from Apocalypse Now to the novels of Robert Stone, about the effect of the Vietnam War era on soldiers and rock stars. But what about the lost daughters of the Sixties and Seventies? In Leave It to Me, Bharati Mukheijee takes up the story of an abandoned baby girl, “tossed out like a garbage sack on the hippie trail” in India, who later decides to go looking for her biological parents in Southern California. But don’t wait for the happy ending. This prodigal daughter is a lean, mean matricidal machine, more interested in old-fashioned vengeance than Nineties “closure.”
Leave It to Me is Mukherjee’s fifth novel, and the first since the much-acclaimed The Holder of the World (1993), which also explored questions of history and identity. Born in Calcutta, the 57year-old author lived in Canada from 1966 to 1980, where she spoke out passionately against racism in an article she published in Saturday Night magazine in 1981. She has also co-written books with her Canadian novelist husband Clark Blaise (Days and Nights in Calcutta). For the past 17 years, the author has lived in the United States, where she now teaches English at the University of California at Berkeley. Leave It to Me is saturated with Southern California culture, but the story is a provocative blend of East and West, old and new. The heroine, for example, is a sort of modern mongrel—part Electra, part avenging goddess from an Indian fairy tale, and part all-American Tarantino waif on a killing spree.
Devi Dee is the daughter of a California hippie who went to India and fell in with a Eurasian thug who turned out to be a serial killer. Abandoned in India and salvaged by nuns in a Catholic orphanage, Devi is raised in a happy Italian-American family in Schenectady, N.Y. “I was a tall girl in a small school,” writes Mukheijee in the voice of her
avatar, “a beautiful girl in a plain family, an exotic girl in a very American town.”
But Devi is ruthless and driven by needs —because, as the author insists, “when you inherit nothing, you are entitled to everything.” At 23, Devi lights out for Berkeley— birthplace of the counterculture—to hunt down mom and dad. Her mood is nasty. Devi is a ghost of history come home to haunt the careless generation in their comfortable middle age.
Mukheijee’s heroine is damaged goods, the distaff version of Vietnam vets who came home from the war “on permanent overdrive,” as the author writes. In fact, when Devi reaches Berkeley, she finds that she has a lot in common with a neighbor in her rooming house, Ix>co Larry, a vet with a sign that says “I T my arsenal.”
Devi, “all allure and strength and zero innocence,” quickly finds a lover, Hamilton Cohan, film director and former Haight Street hippie leader. And Ham turns out to be the route back to Devi’s mom, Jess, who has evolved from the girl who protested the War “by doing dope on an alien continent” to the manager of a firm that caters to authors on book tours.
At this point, the cultural jokes and the novel’s moral vision begin to take over from believable characters and credible action. In Leave It to Me, Mukheijee treats a whole generation—the sons and daughters of the Seventies—as historical foundlings, orphaned by the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. She portrays them as shape-shifters, able to imagine themselves into any lives—and just as quick to detach themselves again. Uprooted from history, her characters have a dangerous potential for creation, or destruction.
Leave It to Me mischievously frames the American attitude towards history (if things get nasty, just turn the page and start fresh) with the Eastern concept of karma (what goes around, comes around). The novel is a warning that what America sowed in the Sixties, it will eventually have to reap. In Mukherjee’s view, this has led to a generation of adults with an inflated sense of entitlement and a shrivelled sense of acI countability. And it has bred kids 9 like Devi, who have grown up 1 hungry for their own apocalyptic i role in history.
I Unfortunately, the author’s finii ger-wagging begins to under| mine the story and take the fun 1 out of her merciless portrait of ° Southern California life. The novMukherjee: portraying history’s orphans in Southern California el ought to have been bitterly fun-
ny, but isn’t. Merely compiling a grocery list of familiar targets—vanity licence plates, food chic, car culture—is no substitute for real characters with a modicum of charm. Devi’s mother, Jess, never comes into focus, and the street lingo sounds off-pitch, a serious shortcoming in a novel where former hippies are the main characters.
Mukheijee seems too impatient with details of language and character, and in too much of a hurry to paint the larger picture of America confronting the consequences of its past. A reader is left admiring the author’s intelligence, but feeling abandoned too—as displaced in the world of the novel, and as hungry for a connection to the characters, as Devi Dee in deepest Berkeley.
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