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Magic Flaws
By Margaret Black

The Solace of Leaving Early
By Haven Kimmel, Doubleday, 260 pages, $23.95

Blue Shoe
By Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 291 pages, $24.95

Child of My Heart
By Alice McDermott, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pages, $23

The Solace of Leaving Early, Blue Shoe, and Child of My Heart, recent novels by Haven Kimmel, Anne Lamott, and Alice McDermott, are not their best works, but each is worth reading for very considerable and powerful qualities. All three authors write realistically, playing no intellectual games with style or structure. Not one of these novels relies on plot. Instead, each depends on deceptively casual observation of character, both major and minor. This dead-on accuracy extends to the setting, and all three authors bring such rich humor to their fictional worlds that you know why people keep on living despite the horrible things that can happen. In addition, I believe these works are strong precisely for characteristics that others have criticized as weaknesses.

The Solace of Leaving Early, Kimmel’s first novel following her very successful memoir, takes a Midwestern town like the one she grew up in (population perpetually 300) and strands there two intellectual misfits who reluctantly come together over two little girls orphaned by a bloody murder. That such a story should sail along on high humor seems improbable, but at its best that is how Solace engages you with complex ideas about God, love, meaning, redemption, social responsibility, and the complicated feelings they engender. Self-absorbed, hyperintellectual, emotionally stunted Langston Braverman has fled a failed love affair and her Ph.D. oral examination to hide out in the stiflingly hot attic of her parents’ home. There she ponders the evils of English departments (“Life in an English department never rises to the level of Machiavelli—that would be such a welcomed evolution—no, no, it’s more like an inner-city riot; fires burning in the street, looting, horribly misconceived slogans”) and plans to change her life by writing what sounds like a ghastly postmodern novel. Earnest, thoughtful, ineffectual Amos Townsend, minister of a local church, wants to write his way out of his metaphysical confusion, but meanwhile has to deal with the double murder of a couple he counseled. (“In Introduction to Pastoral Care, Amos had been taught to say, ‘Thank you for trusting me enough to share your story,’ as opposed to ‘that story reminds me of all the reasons I’m planning to die young.’ ”)

Critics complained about all those dull ideas. It’s true that Kimmel tends to stagger around in the tangled brains of Amos or Langston, rather than throwing them into the active encounters that dramatize the ideas behind Langston’s brilliant raging fury and Amos’ persistent muddled decency. It’s infuriating because Kimmel does such scenes very effectively. In one, Langston furiously lashes out about Haddington:

The people in this town, indeed all over the Midwest, I would venture, live lives which are entirely outward-directed; they take in and synthesize stimuli at the shallowest possible level, and simply act. They have no concept of an inner life, and so are often, in my experience, puzzled by their own behaviors when those behaviors don’t fall neatly into preestablished categories.

She’s just warming to her tirade when she takes, as an example of any married couple in town, a pair sitting near them. Amos interrupts to tell her their names—Langston continues, using their names—then Amos adds that they’re not married, but are having an affair. Langston keeps trying to get on with her generalized denunciation; Amos keeps hanging her up with contradictory specifics.

There are real problems with background motivations—Langston’s relationship with her brother, Amos’ first love affair—but they’re worth plowing through (or skimming over) to get to the extraordinary scenes with Langston’s truly awful grandmother, or Amos’ moving experience with the death of his first church. Immaculata and Epiphany, the self-renamed orphans, are by themselves worth the price of the book.

Anne Lamott is probably the only born-again Christian read by large numbers of secular humanists. That’s probably because she’s an energetically left-wing radical with an overpoweringly funny sense of the absurd. Lamott pisses off some readers who don’t like her “bringing in her religion.” Why in heaven’s name not? It’s fascinating to witness an intelligent person’s grappling with powerful religious impulses. Like other critics, I prefer Lamott’s nonfiction—Operating Instructions, Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird—but her novels are suffused with the same desperate humor and with the same concern for meaning and lives lived ethically.

Blue Shoe trots through several years in the life of Mattie Ryder, divorced mother of two, who struggles to keep herself and those she loves afloat during a period when nothing seems to cohere. Her vital social-activist mother is falling apart mentally, she’s got rats in her house, her children miss their father. She discovers the existence of a grown half-brother and finds his derelict mother, an old childhood friend. She comes to know that she understood almost nothing about her parents.

Some readers complain about Lamott’s whining heroines. But I believe that whine is precisely her strength—the often querulous, self-justifying, self-despising, hopeful, fearful, angry, loving commentary that runs on relentlessly in all our minds, male and female. Lamott’s energetic rendering invests it with a crazy humor, dangerous honesty, and hysterical insight. Mattie’s ex drops his two kids off after their weekend visits, “with an air of weary heroism, like a firefighter returning the engine to the firehouse after a particularly difficult outing.” A lover is finally found wanting because he’s “so constrained, so neatly trimmed, someone who’d been doing topiary with his soul all his life.”

Sometimes the pace is too slow, even though it’s in aid of showing how life proceeds. But the harrowing, grotesquely uneven decline of Mattie’s mother is a tour de force, and one that is effectively realized only over a period of time. Ultimately, Blue Shoe is about how Mattie is constantly making “family”—putting together supportive people who care for each other’s welfare—out of difficult and sometimes improbable material.

With Child of My Heart, Alice McDermott had to overcome the encomiums heaped on her prizewinning novel, Charming Billy. The central character is 15-year-old Theresa, who cares, one summer in the 1950s, for “four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist” out on the end of Long Island. Readers and critics have praised McDermott’s writing—as well they should—but kiddies don’t have the heft for readers that alcoholic adults in desperate marriages do. Some found Theresa unbelievably saintly and capable. Others excoriated her brief sexual encounter with a 70-year-old as unrealistic or disgusting child abuse.

I think they have completely missed the point. Beautiful Theresa’s remarkable capacity to get along with small children is entirely credible. She genuinely likes them, is physically warm with them, and pays attention to them and what they like. She’s intelligent and imaginative. An only child trusted by her parents and left to her own devices, she’s become quite self-sufficient. Until now, she hasn’t faced any insurmountable problems or found herself in a position of moral ambiguity. Theresa exercises her considerable power benignly because it pleases her to do so and because no one challenges her.

The summer of the novel changes this. Theresa recognizes that something is wrong with Daisy. But she does not go beyond her own magical curative measures, as she knows she should, because she wants Daisy’s summer visit to continue. Ultimately, although she appears to escape any blame, she has not absolved herself and her life has changed.

Theresa carefully arrives at her experience of sexual intercourse. She is not beset by sexual desire, and she’s got a very clear vision of the artist as a physically old man. He is not decrepit, however, nor is he unattractive. But Theresa principally desires the knowledge of intercourse, not a sensual experience. She knows that the artist thinks her attractive and that he screws any willing woman. She also knows he will do nothing that she doesn’t solicit and that he poses no threat to her afterwards. To understand what is happening here, readers simply have to reject current notions that girls cannot have reasons to desire such theoretically inappropriate coupling or that they will always be damaged by it. Theresa is far more affected by Daisy’s death than she is by getting rid of her virginity.

If there’s anything unbelievable in this book it’s that Theresa’s Irish immigrant parents (offspring of servants who certainly know whom the rich marry) have moved to Long Island when she is 2 because: a) they know that she will be extraordinarily beautiful and b) they want her to marry well. Moreover, c) they have informed Theresa about this strategy.

The winter is long. That a book has flaws or problems or slow stretches doesn’t make it worthless, and these three novels all contain true gold as well.

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