Spinners by Anthony McCarten (Morrow, $24) Teenagers invent all sorts of fantastic stories to disguise their follies, but Delia Chapman trumps an entire generation of

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Books Quarterly: Short Reviews

Spinners by Anthony McCarten (Morrow, $24) Teenagers invent all sorts of fantastic stories to disguise their follies, but Delia Chapman trumps an entire generation of fibbers in her role as the protagonist in Spinners. A 16-year-old who works in the meat-packing plant that's the largest employer in her depressed New Zealand town, she turns up one night in a total daze; delivered into the compassionate arms of the one-man police force, Delia speaks of an alien abduction. The story leaks out through the sheriff's loose-lipped wife and sets the town abuzz, but the gossip grows to a roar when it's announced that Delia and two of her peers from the plant are pregnant—and each claims that they've never had sex, at least not with a human. While the parents and local authorities attempt to unmask the rogue who must have ravaged these girls, and while some delight in the sensationalism of an alien gang-bang, two men search for the truth. There's newcomer Phillip, a comely and philosophical but troubled young man brought in by his uncle, the mayor, to reopen the decrepit library; and Vic, a big-city journalist who becomes personally entwined in a hopelessly unlikely scenario he helped validate. Author Anthony McCarten, a successful New Zea-land playwright, displays a deft touch in his debut as a novelist. He develops the plot as a comedic mystery, making Delia's ridiculous alibi seem plausible at times, and he animates an ambitious collection of characters as he leads this marvelous book to its mildly surprising end. Richard A. Martin Equipoise by Kathleen Halme (Sarabande, $12.95) In the work of Bellingham poet Kathleen Halme, a solitary spirit addresses a world not always in the mood for conversation. Even when events seem more responsive to human wishes, a perfect communion proves impossible—words that go between also stand between. But the poems keep pushing against the nature of things, pressing toward pure, unmediated experience, a union of self and surroundings that words can't achieve. In Halme's prize-winning first book, Every Substance Clothed (University of Georgia), the pursuit of a fusion admitted to be impossible is tragic, cryptic, antic, athletic—is interesting in the vexed and prickly erotics of its moves. The speakers of the poems accost experience and language, survive their stoniness, and swing the reader between vision and question, pother and calm. Equipoise shares the concerns of the earlier book, but feels a bit lighter in weight and less piercing in intelligence, its metaphors tending toward the fluid and flowery instead of edges and iron. One wishes the new poems had harder work to do, and more art in lines that feel either thin or clotted. Still, there are many sharply observed moments: "pelicans/like folding chairs" ("Betwixt the Flames and Waves"), "the next table of men/who snap the news from page to page" ("In M鲩da, Capital of Yucatᮢ), "love/alive astride lighthouse and gray scarf of horizon" ("Knots"), and the sexy, child-free woman sassing mothers who nag her to reproduce ("Autotomy"). Equipoise is most admirable when precariously achieved in the midst of trouble. Judy Lightfoot On the Loose: Big City Days and Nights of Three Single Women by Melissa Roth (William Morrow, $23) When reading becomes more of an opportunity to learn the lurid details of real people's lives than a self-edifying pastime, that's when we resign ourselves to vicarious pleasures. Thankfully, in her new book, On the Loose, in which she tracks three swingin' single women from LA, New York, and San Francisco for an entire year, first-time author Melissa Roth has the foresight to change her subjects' names, because wow, these gals certainly are going to need all the anonymity they can muster in order to live down kissing, screwing, screwing some more, and telling. Jen, a Hollywood-studio type, yearns for her older sister's stable marriage, but knows all men in LA don't want to get in her pants—they want to get in her Rolodex. Anna, a soon-to-be-divorced ad exec in San Francisco, decides that all of straight San Francisco is taken, so sleeps with a guy she meets on business in Texas, "the bad cowboy." Turns out he's involved and has a child on the way. Casey works for a major record label in Manhattan and has a thing for ginseng and tantric sex. In her introduction, Roth expresses genuine interest in how today's single woman gets along without marriage. She writes that "[These three women] have a healthy outlook on their single state." Unfortunately, Roth's earnest tracking of her three subjects gets totally contradicted and, ultimately, lost in Jen's, Anna's, and Casey's escapades. And we're not talking just a few flings: Each woman exhibits a high frequency for attracting the same losers she knows won't ever treat her well. It's as if Ally McBeal herself came in and sucked their low-cal brains right out of their heads. So much for their glamorous jobs, interesting female friends, and frequent-flier getaways. The saddest part of this read—don't get me wrong, it's easygoing and fluffy, like a trashy novel—was that none of these women evolve beyond rampant boy-craziness. Sure, we're not getting their full stories, but gee, is sex the only plot thickener in singlehood these days? If anything, Roth has succeeded in making settling down all the more attractive. Emily Baillargeon Seattle's Historian and Promoter: The Life of Edmond Meany by George A. Frykman (WSU Press, $28) If Edmond Meany is familiar at all to modern Seattleites, it is as the namesake of both an arts hall at the University of Washington and an art-deco-ish hotel nearby. Yet, as George A. Frykman makes clear in this new biography, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries Meany was both an aggressive booster of Washington's future and an applauded preserver of its past. Born in Michigan in 1862 but relocated to Seattle at age 14, Meany was among the earliest graduates of Washington's Territorial University (now the UW). Described by Frykman as "bright, eager, and competitive," he tried a variety of business avenues before finding success in press agentry, convincing the state of Washington to publicize itself at Chicago's famous 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and later persuading Seattle to host its first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. Also helping to raise Meany's profile was his election to two terms as a state representative in Olympia. While there he won support for extensive development of the UW, where he taught history for 40 years and became "the state's most important early historian." Author Frykman, professor emeritus of history at Washington State University, has done a stupendous job of digging into Meany's triumphs and trials. Yet his tight focus on the quotidian details of his subject's life, to the exclusion of much discussion about larger events that shaped Seattle in Meany's time (there's only a passing reference here to the Klondike gold rush, for instance, and little more about goings-on at the completed AYP) leave the average reader with little context for Meany's activities. Further, Frykman's text is lacking in the drama and fictive techniques that are demanded of any history work seeking a wide audience. Seattle's Historian and Promoter is an earnest and commendable effort, but its appeal may be only to the most serious students of Seattle's past. J. Kingston Pierce Appalachia by Charles Wright (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20) It has been nearly 30 years since poet Charles Wright began working on his proposed Dantean trilogy of trilogies. The first trilogy was collected in Country Music, which received the National Book Award in 1983; the second in The World of Ten Thousand Things; and the first two volumes of the third trilogy, Chickamauga and Black Zodiac, were published as recently as last year. Black Zodiac won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998. Appalachia brings to a conclusion this monumental poem. Whether read as epic or as individual poems within individual books, Wright's poetry is like that of no one else presently writing. He is less directly autobiographical, less ego-centered, and more philosophically inquisitive than almost any of his contemporaries. His poems are direct, uncluttered, and strikingly luminous in their ability to reveal tension between a materialistic reality and questions of faith. In "Ars Poetica II" he writes, "I find, after all these years, I am a believer—/I believe that dreams are real,/and that death has two reprisals;/I believe that dead leaves and black water fill my heart./. . . God is the fire my feet are held to." With crisp, vital imagery and an ear that was trained on the prosody of Ezra Pound ("the line composed by the musical phrase, not by the metronome"), Wright's poems turn on their flawless phrasing with surprising grace. He has read extensively in both Eastern and Western poetic philosophical traditions, but wears his erudition as easily and comfortably and disarmingly as an old robe. Ultimately facing his own inevitable demise, he observes, "I inhabit who I am, as T'ao Ch'ing says, and walk about/Under the mindless clouds./When it ends, it ends. What else?/ One morning I'll leave home and never find my way back—/My story and I will disappear together, just like this." But of course he is wrong, and he knows it. Wright's story will not end. In literature, the story of the poem never ends. Great poetry joins great poetry to become a part of our cultural and personal storehouse of wisdom. Wright's magnificent trilogy of trilogies will live on, as we continue to ask the same questions we have always asked of poetry: How can we live and love? Wright's wisdom and music and brilliance will doubtless be among the artifacts of our time that show a way for those to follow. Sam Hamill House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (Norton $24.95) House of Sand and Fog is the achingly real tale of what happens when the American Dream goes awry, when two desperate worlds collide and undermine their own chances for success. Through parallel narratives that resolve in one heart-breaking conclusion, Dubus unfurls a poignant drama that is engrossing precisely because the characters are so clearly destined for disappointment. One-half of the story involves an Iranian immigrant family whose members fled their country to avoid political persecution and is struggling to attain their former levels of wealth and respectability in San Francisco. The other half is about a down-on-her-luck alcoholic housecleaner named Kathy Lazaro who loses ownership of her Bay Area house because her junkie husband—who abandoned her—didn't pay taxes. To her rescue comes Lester Burdon, a cop who's dissatisfied with his marriage and a sucker for motel-room trysts. The Iranians' lives intersect with Kathy's and Lester's shortly after Kathy is evicted. Deception is this novel's binding element, the thread that entangles each character. In the first few pages we find the Iranian Col. Massoud Amir Behrani laboring, without his family's knowledge, for a San Francisco road crew in order to uphold appearances so that his daughter can marry well; Kathy is jarred from her denial when she is evicted from her bungalow. As the story progresses, deception envelops and shifts, like the two substances in the title, becoming a torment to Behrani and an inescapable trap for Kathy and Lester. Behrani's unshakable determination to reach the legendary zone of the American good life and the couple's personal and cultural malaise destroy their ability to resolve the tragic misunderstanding that first united them. Dubus has written a book full of longing, a vivid and exquisitely realized snapshot of America's underside. Rebecca Robinson

 
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