This Week's Reads

Zoe Heller, Matthew McIntosh, and Lisa Jewell.

This Week's Reads WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? (NOTES ON A SCANDAL)

By Zoe Heller (Henry Holt, $23) I don't know much about Zoe Heller, but I bet her old weekly column for London's Sunday Times was pretty wild. After finishing her hilarious, provocative second novel, I'm guessing she's also had some experience with extramarital affairs. Here's how her adulterous heroine, Sheba Hart, defends herself: "[D]oing that kind of thing is easy. You know how you sometimes have another drink even though you know you're going to have a hangover tomorrow? Well, it's like that. You keep saying No, no, no until the moment when you say, Oh bugger it. Yes." Sheba, a hippie art teacher at a London high school, is shagging one of her 15-year-old studentsbut the simplicity of her defense is precisely why it works. She offers no self-pitying excuses about recapturing her youth or boosting her graying ego. Heller knows that in the second it takes to say, "Bugger it" (or whatever colloquialism applies), careers, families, and entire lives get tossed down the toilet, and you find yourself completely, inappropriatelyand, in Sheba's case, criminallynaked. Yes, before you ask, Heller has stated in interviews that she was inspired by our own Mary Kay LeTourneau case. But what leads a sensible 42-year-old professional woman to shag her inarticulate pupil in public parks and forest shadows? Thanks to the narration and note taking of her older, wiser, and stodgier colleague, Barbara, we're shown enough of Sheba's unsatisfying family lifeshe's married with two kids, one of them autistic and the other a complete bratto understand why getting into a scandalous affair could be so easy. Because life, before "Bugger it," is a pain in the ass. More importantly, Heller's deft, humorous, and sympathetic novel is as much about the relationship between Sheba and Barbara as the scandalous affair. Barbara is an excellent characteras good as any I've read in contemporary fictionwho gradually reveals the depth of her own aching loneliness while recounting Sheba's folly. And she, like Sheba, has a craving for companionship that is equally as selfish and all-encompassing. Though it ends rather flatly, Heller has penned a captivating character study and a thoroughly entertaining tale completely free from schlock and silly excuses. Would that all affairs went so smoothly. LAURA CASSIDY Zoe Heller will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 4.  

The pride of Federal Way? Author McIntosh.

photo: David Filler WELL

By Matthew McIntosh (Grove Press, $23) Just as Raymond Carver put obscure Northwest backwaters like Prosser and Toppenish on the literary map, Matthew McIntosh's debut novel, Well, stakes a claim for lowly Federal Way as the rich new locus of unexamined lives. But don't look for his book to show up on any Chamber of Commerce recommended-reading list. As portrayed by 26-year-old native son McIntosh, the good citizens of Federal Way are relentlessly un-well. As one scene ends with a guy retching over a toilet, the next opens at a strip club, the next with a guy hitting his head on the bottom of a pool, the next offers a coupla junkies philosophizing, followed by a woman excitedly ringing up the Poison Control Center to identify the pills she just found in the sofa. To capture broken, fragmented lives, McIntosh opts for a broken, fragmented style. Well is built from an irregular mosaic of literary shardsshort scenes and portraits, monologues, a long string of characters introduced one after the other, none of them ever to recur after their brief moment on the stage. He thwarts our wish to become more involved with these people (just as they're incapable of making lasting attachments to one other). Declaring his book a novel is like an act of defiance and, certainly, hubris. What of those critics who've knocked the author's refusal to offer sustained character or plot development? In a recent interview on a British literary Web site Bookmunch, McIntosh dismisses those who cling to novelistic conventions: "A lot of these people should be retiring soon," he airily observes. Unlike so many young writers, McIntosh, who graduated from the UW and now lives in San Francisco, is neither blatantly autobiographical in his work nor caught up in his own generational obsessions. Indeed he's downright heroicand, much of the time, brilliantly convincingin his efforts to inhabit (however briefly) the minds of a huge cast of sad Federal Way ne'er-do-wells: a middle-aged man with terminal cancer; a 35-year-old lonely gay bartender with a drinking problem; a 17-year-old Korean high-school drop-out doing every drug she can grab; a great-grandmother hoping for a quick death; a disturbed high-school kid stalking a female classmate; a host of aging, frustrated, blue-collar men; even (in a bizarre, not terribly successful detour) that insane guy who forced a Metro bus off the Aurora Bridge a few years ago. Yet a few of these portraits are connected by a kind of internal web. The penultimate piece, "The Border," examines the impact of a man's suicide on a dozen different characters to whom he was variously connected; while the opening piece, "Burlesque," captures the strained relationships among a half-dozen Federal Wayers for whom that evening's Sonics game serves as a focus and metaphor for deeper aspirations. (Need I say the Supes lose?) There's an underlying emotional tissue of anger, mental derangement, and hunger for escapeas well as regular visits to the local bar, the Trolleythat McInstosh captures with brute, eloquent compassion. While the tone and diction remain fairly constant (a familiar, vivid sort of Carver-esque vernacular), somehow McIntosh manages to make the disparate characters distinct. And he does so without a hint of slumming false fellowship. That someone so young, and so promising, can so sensitively depict the disappointments of crushed midlife is impressive. Still, the chief failing of Well is a lack of arc and development: You could throw up the book's various units and subsections and let them land in a completely different order and their impact would be the same. There's no serial power, just a cumulative one. So though I don't believe every book needs to read like Clarissa, I still feel the young author fell short in his quest to expand our definition of a novel, to create something grand and Altman-esque, something more than a patchwork. There is something, too, just slightly patronizing in McIntosh's depiction of uneducated, blue-collar stiffs uniformly consumed with rage and despair. Is it really fair to presume that a guy who sweeps up at KeyArena resents his lot and hates his life? I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich, who, in Nickel and Dimed, enters the low-wage world of the service economy and finds, for the most part, that she is the only one seething with boredom and resentment. So while I admire and respect McIntosh for focusing on the hurt, forgotten, and desperate, his lightless world of sorrow seems no more complete than does a sunny MGM musical. MARK D. FEFER Matthew McIntosh will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 6.   ONE-HIT WONDER

By Lisa Jewell (Plume Books, $13) What are the odds? Three of the last four books I've read have been about sisters. What's more, all three books have been about the dumpier sisterthe uncool sister, the underdog sister. And yes, the underdog sister always comes out a winner in popular chick-lit fiction, and such is the case with Lisa Jewell's third novel (new in paperback). Ana is the tall, skinny, plain-Jane younger sister of Bee, an '80s-era one-hit wonder not unlike Kylie Minogue. The two girls are 11 years apart, with different fathers and very different lives. In fact, since hitting it big and moving to London, then having a falling-out with their mother at her father's funeral, Bee has been estranged from her family for years. Then news comes that Bee has suddenly and mysteriously died, and underdog Ana is sent from sleepy rural Devon to the big bad city to collect her things. So what happens to the uncool sister once she delves into her sister's cool life? Predictably, Ana finds out that Bee's life wasn't all that cool. Also, predictably, she figures out that there are worse things than her own fate of being tall and skinny. There's not much more to Wonder than that. Jewell's characters are entertaining, and her book is funny, fast, and familiar in that way that chick-lit is supposed to be. Yet Ana's detective work is as easy for her as guessing her trajectory was for me based purely on the book's back cover. (Or maybe it's the last two sister books catching up with me.) Certainly, there are women all across the globe eating this shit up. Jewell references Blondie songs and name drops Vivienne Westwood. Her language is modern and hipyou figure she is, too. And in the end, that's the snooze button: Too much of Wonder is too much like Sex and the City for tall, skinny younger sisters. But what do I know? I've only got a brother. L.C.

 
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