Lion of Judah

by Victor Ostrovsky,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0312100167

One Indian Summer

by Wayne Curtis,
200 pages,
ISBN: 0864921519

Visions of Kerouac

by Ken Mcgoogan,
ISBN: 0919001750

Birds of Passage

by Linda Leith,
256 pages,
ISBN: 092183313X

A Circle of Birds:
Winner of the 15th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest

by Hayden Trenholm,
99 pages,
ISBN: 1895636035

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First Novels - Fanciful Flights
by Gary Draper

THERE ARE real and metaphorical birds aplenty in Linda Leith's remarkable Birds of Passage (Nuage Editions, 236 pages, $13.95 paper), which is set in Budapest in 1990. Among a veritable aviary of characters, two are central. One is Gabor Marton, a Hungarian playwright and opposition member of parliament who is perched uncertainly on the fence between writing and politics. He is a bird of glorious plumage, and a distinctly European breed. The other is his temporary neighbour, Alice, who has accompanied her husband, Daniel, from Montreal to Budapest, where he is to set in motion an English-language theatre. As the marriage of Daniel and Alice starts to unravel, Gabor and Alice do a marvellously believable mating dance; much of the novel's suspense depends on the outcome of that ritual.

There's more going on here than the rise and fall of interrelated love stories. The political manoeuvrings that counterpoint the romantic theme are convincing, though a drug-deal subplot that helps to join the disparate worlds of Alice and Gabor remains unrealized. But Leith has the gifts of a natural storyteller, and the overall shape of the novel is exceptionally well designed and for the most part very satisfying.

Leith paints an affecting portrait of a marriage in decline, with the partners aware of what is happening and yet apparently unable to prevent it. Her observations on Alice and Daniel's coming apart often have an aphoristic ring: "Does Alice still love Daniel? At a certain stage in a long marriage, the question becomes meaningless. Daniel is part of Alice, and she of him."

Leith's decision to write from the points of view of both leading characters also allows her to demonstrate her insight into their respective habits: Gabor's view of the luxurious frugality of the environmentally correct North American, for example, or Alice on the smoking habits of Hungarians, a wonderfut comic turn.

Because Birds of Passage is a very sophisticated book, the title cuts many ways. The various birds that inhabit apartments, tunnels, mines, and nests enrich the story without intruding on it: suggestions of freedom and confinement, of beauty and fragility, rise naturally into the narrative. Moreover, because Gabor is a writer, Leith is able to comment playfully on her own creation. The novel's ending seemed a touch contrived, but in a book of such varied delights this is a very small quibble.

In sharp contrast to the international flavour of Birds of Passage, Wayne Curtis's One Indian Summer (Wild East, 197 pages, $16.95 paper) is at least in part the exploration of a local Canadian sensibility, specifically that of the Miramichi in the 1950s. The central character is Steven Moar, whose coming-of-age-in-rural-Canada story sounds, in outline, like a web of cliches. Steve is torn between the available, unschooled Cindy, who lives across the river, and Amanda, the popular, university-bound singer who lives in town. His advance to manhood is mirrored by his father's decline, and marked by Steve's growing alienation from his home place, in contrast to his brother, Danny, who seems unlikely ever to flex his wings to rise above his birthplace. At the same time, the place and its people are much loved by young Steve. Sounds pretty tired, right? In fact it is remarkably fresh.

What redeems the book more than anything is the quality of its prose. Curtis has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and he renders his characters - especially Steve and his father, Tom wholly believable by a combination of sensitivity and true speech. Here is Tom working up to a story of the old times:

"Boys, I tell ya, one spring she jammed in here on the flat. What a Mess.

"Way up here?"

"Oh hell, yes, right where we're standin'. Took out every bridge on the Jesus river. What a son-of-a-whore-of-a-jam that was."

"How long ago was that?" 1 ask.

The speech of Curtis's characters sparkles with local vocabulary and constructions, and sometimes with grim humour. Informed of the death of a much-unloved neighbour, Tom says, "With a corpse right here in the county ... 1 suppose we'll have ta send flowers."

One Indian Summer is like one of those optical tricks that allows the observer to see a pyramid of cubes floating above or, at a blink, piled below. At a blink, this narrative can seem not so much leisurely as plodding, the prose more simplistic than simple. And certainly the book is not free from melodramatic flourishes. But at its best it is subtle and evocative, and it is graced by an ending that is plausible, moving, and bittersweet.

Here is the opening of Hayden Trenholm's A Circle of Birds (Anvil, 99 pages, $9.95 paper):

Each morning there is a scaly sheath of memory lying on my bed, sloughed away during the night. It lies there, glittering in the morning sun. 1 try to touch it but it crumbles to dust beneath my fingers. It is all slipping away.

If One Indian Summer is earthbound and documentary in its texture, A Circle of Birds is all fire and air, elusive, allusive, and illusory. It is not an easy book to describe. While there is a sort of narrative thread running throughout, concerning the life of William Anderson and sometimes his son, Bill Jr. - the book consists largely of narrative fragnients, often ripped from any context but held together by recurring names, motifs, and incidents.

The stories often involve violence (from car crashes to self-mutilation and murder), sex (including a haunting image of a hand crossing a man's - or boy's - belly and reaching down between his legs), and disorientation. The book's early pages are dreamlike, but as the bonds of reality progressively loosen, the novel becomes more and more surreal and nightmarish.

Considering that Circle of Birds is the 1992 winner of Canada's annual threeday novel-writing contest, it seems amazingly complex and suggestive. It did cross my mind that perhaps there is less here than meets the eye, that it's all glittering surface and no substance (or, as various characters opine in the book from time to time: "I'll tell ya what it means. It don't mean shit"). But I don't think so. At the very least this is an unsettling meditation on the passage of time and the nature of identity.

What I liked best about Ken McGoogan's Visions of Kerouac (Pottersfield, 268 pages, $ 16.9 5 paper) was its ending. Even if you're not enthralled by the book as a whole and I wasn't - the book's penultimate chapter makes the trip worthwhile. And "trip" is the word. There are four intercutting stories here. One: Frankie and his wife, Camille, take a trip to Haight-Ashbury to reconnect with Frankie's hippie past. Two: Frankie's hippie past. Three: Frankie encounters the ghost (more or less) of Jack Kerouac during a stint as a fire ranger. And four: Frankie (or Ken McGoogan) and Jack talk, often about the book that Frankie (Ken) is writing. This seems to me, in outline, a more intriguing premise than that of, say, One Indian Summer. And yet where that book seemed to me to deliver more than it promised, Visions of Kerouac delivers less.

I think one reason is that the fragments need to do two things. They need to work as independent flashes and to cohere into something bigger than their sum. In the end they do neither. Many of the short pieces sound like journal entries, shapeless and unpolished. And a great deal of the book is really a polemical essay on Kerouac and his achievement. Chapter 3 1, for example, is cast as a dialogue between Frankie and Camille about Kerouac's drinking. But the two voices are not individualized, and while the piece is moderately interesting as an essay, it just doesn't succeed as fiction. Perhaps McGoogan needed to be either more conventional or more adventurous: as it is, Visions of Kerouac is like an absolutely splendidlooking airplane whose only drawback is that it doesn't fly.

Victor Ostrovsky's Lion of Judah (Stoddart, 313 pages, $24.95 cloth) is a thriller that suffers no confusion about its relation to the conventions of its genre. The book's hero is Natan Stone, a committed, intelligent Mossad officer whose job is taking its toll on his idealism. When he is framed as a mole, he must work independently in order to clear his name and prevent an international disaster at the same time. All the women he works with are gorgeous, and most seem reasonably keen to have sex with him. His opponent is a master spy from the former East Germany who is as fiendishly clever as he is simply fiendish.

Of course good writing can turn such unpromising dross to gold, or at least raise a sparkle. Because of Ostrovsky's lacklustre prose, that seldom happens here. Describing an encounter Natan once had with a stockings- and-garterclad hooker, Ostrovsky says, "It had been one hell of a sight, since she had quite a body." Or again, near the book's climax, the author says that Natan was "on his way to a rendezvous with fate." Such leaden prose can hardly lift a story above its premises. To be fair, there are some genuinely suspenseful moments in the book, and a puzzle to be solved. My guess is that for the dedicated fan there is enough here to provide some thrills for a lazy afternoon.


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