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Independent Voices
By Margaret Black

Liam’s Going
By Michael Joyce McPherson & Company, 207 pages, $22

Dreaming Maples
By Claudia Ricci Star Root Press, 427 pages, $14.95

Liam’s Going and Dreaming Maples, two interesting but completely different novels from small upstate New York presses, exemplify why it’s important to learn about and support the production of regional publishers. The agglomeration of book publishing into a few huge organizations has led to a limited, largely homogenous production of novels. Many young, first-time authors get a chance, but they have to make big money or they’re out. Older writers, writers with smaller audiences, even authors perceived to have smaller audiences, don’t stand a chance. Except for small presses. Repeatedly the independents have shown themselves willing to take chances and fewer profits. But you have to know that their products exist, and with the large publishers dominating the pathetically insufficient review outlets, it’s rare that anyone but longtime fans learns about good small-press publications.

In Liam’s Going, Michael Joyce sketches with quick, accurate strokes the emotional wrenching that parents undergo as they send a beloved child out into the world, in this case to college. It’s the end they’ve sought for 18 years, and they know that it’s not a permanent parting. But they also know that if they’ve been successful as parents, none of their connections with this child will ever again be as intense or as regular as they have been.

Liam’s mother, Cathleen, a well-known poet, drives her son south along the Hudson River to a college somewhere near New York City. They’re making a two-day trip of it so that Cathleen can take Liam off the highway and show him the landscape and history of the lower Hudson, an area she came to love one summer when she took Italian and, unbeknownst to her husband, had an intense affair with a local apple farmer. Noah, her husband, has given her this present of time alone with Liam. A lawyer, he remains at home, where he has a brief weekend adventure of his own when he is called upon to assist an elderly client.

This short book is saturated with poetry—in conception, language, and structure. As the chapters alternate between the mind of Cathleen and that of Noah, events and phrases recur or complement each other. Carefully selected, beautifully precise detail—“a clang of tinny treble seeped from Liam’s earphones”—renders experience as in a poem. The evolution of the Cathleen chapters through the historic names for Storm King Mountain—Echo, Butter, Storm—carry us through changes in personal history, mood, and understanding. For his part, Noah is given nature and the imagination of a marvelous old woman to inform his own memories of a Frenchwoman and a death that changed his world.

The family is happy—a clever idea to avoid any hint of a dysfunctional family for this story—but perhaps happy to a fault. Cathleen and Noah seem preternaturally loving, without the gritty collisions that affect even the best of couples. Liam, an only child whom we actually know little about, is sweet and decent—again, a nice given—with just the tiniest edge to him. Cathleen’s affair is beautifully rendered, but its lack of emotional repercussions seems improbable.

If the poetic sensibility cloys at the start of the novel, it gradually, incrementally, becomes moving. And many moments have a startling realism, as when Cathleen becomes aroused thinking of her lover and then embarrassed because she’s sitting next to her handsome son. A few flashes of humor, most notably on the college campus, show that the author can play many tunes on his verbal piano.

Claudia Ricci’s Dreaming Maples, for all its rich descriptions—particularly of sugaring off—is rarely poetic, and it certainly doesn’t present a happy family. This detailed, sprawling account of three generations of women makes its impact precisely in the gritty dramatic collisions between fully realized characters. While the novel focuses on women, the men in the story are neither villainous—well, with one exception—or vacuous. They are three-dimensional, but rarely the focus of attention.

Audrey, the grandmother, lives on a farm in Vermont supported by maple sugaring and such income as is brought in by the artistic endeavors of the women she shares the farm with. Indeed, one of the most interesting examinations of family dynamics occurs in this lesbian commune, where the role of “wife”—cook, bottlewasher, general helpmeet to the producers of income—proves as stressful as it does in any feminist presentation of heterosexual establishments.

The mother, Eileen, is not Audrey’s daughter. The connection to Candace, the beloved granddaughter, is through Audrey’s son, Rusty, who’s Candace’s biological father. Although Rusty has always been Eileen’s good friend, and briefly her lover, he is no one she wants to marry. So like the intentionality of the lesbian family, the involvement of the three generations of the “blood” family are somewhat intentional also. Teenage Candace, like her mother before her, has become pregnant. She loves Mark, the father of her child. He’s a musician who loves her, but he really doesn’t want to marry and start a family. Candace insists that, contrary to her mother’s experience, she can have this child and raise it successfully by herself.

Eileen gives Candace a journal—a problematic device—that she kept when she was unwed and pregnant, which alternately fascinates and infuriates Candace. But mostly Candace resents the fact that Eileen left her, as a baby, in the care of her maternal grandparents, only to reappear when she was 10. Candace hasn’t trusted Eileen since.

Far from the delicately cerebral interior musings of Liam’s Going, this book exists in grubby reality. Except for an unfortunately poetic opening, it dramatizes the connections between individuals as they live lives that include sensational births—in an airplane, on a cabin floor—disastrous accidents, drug use, deaths. It depicts a grand variety of artistic struggle—in painting, sculpture, woodworking, music. It explores the effects, in these lives, of class difference, of ethnic difference. It is visceral, demanding, detailed, and very compelling.

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