THERE ARE at least two clearly. distinguishable personas producing books under the name of Leon Rooke, and they have each contributed a new title to his bibliography. A Good Baby, a novel, has its roots deep in the modern Southern Gothic tradition that encompasses writers such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy; How I Saved the Province, which consists of a novella and three short stories, spotlights the playful, postmodernist side of Rooke's literary interests. Although they have many things in common - a wonderfully idiosyncratic and invigorating prose style not least among them - these two volumes also exhibit some sharp and rather suggestive differences.
A Good Baby is set in an unspecified, extremely isolated section of the American South, and the narrative is almost entirely devoid of references to the outside world. The mail gets through only "once in a blue moon," telephones are seldomused devices that require a special trip to a distant location, and the novel's characters seem totally uninfluenced by television, radio, or the movies. The absence of cultural context also extends to the historical realm, most pointedly when a senior citizen cannot remember whether there has been one world war or two; and when his cronies at the local general store are unable to supply the missing information, our sense that this is a land to some extent outside time is firmly reinforced.
But if the temporal and spatial coordinates at which A Good Baby takes place are only approximately identified, there is nothing tentative about the novel's concern with the basic elements of human nature. The story begins in medias res, in a situation that frequently crops up in Rooke's work: a man and a woman, sexually intimate but strangers in every other respect, steer a turbulent course toward some abrupt and unanticipated change in their relationship. In this case the unnamed woman is pregnant, her older lover, Truman, is afraid that she will use the baby to make a claim on him, and murder is the result.
So far, so archetypally Southern Gothic, but it doesn't take long for Rooke to begin working interesting variations upon this garden-variety plot development. 'Me dialogue between Truman and his victim doesn't function simply as a mask for the violence to follow, but crackles with intimations of approaching horror. Just before the murder occurs, Truman allows the woman to have her baby, which is abandoned to its fate in the aftermath of its father's brutal crime; and if this seems an extremely unlikely occurrence, it is convincingly validated by the narrative's subsequent ventures into Truman's escalating insanity.
'Me point of view now shifts to Toker, a somewhat shiftless young man who has stumbled across the baby and is trying to find a home for it. His well-meaning but not very effective efforts are the occasion for some amusing comic interludes, and also introduce us to several of the other inhabitants of this insular community. 'Me local storekeeper, his wife, and the old-timers who hang out at their establishment are the closest thing to a society that A Good Baby offers, and it's a typically anomic one: held together mainly by habit and proximity, their conversations centre around an imperfectly remembered past and a present ignored by unvoiced but unanimous agreement.
This contrasts strongly with Toker's growing feelings for Roby, a woman whose cynical exterior conceals a deep longing for a man who won't just love her and leave her. The long scene in which Toker and Roby first become acquainted smoulders with the kind of pungent, idiomatic exchanges that pepper the novel's pages: Maybe it was good company you're needin, Toker said. He managed to keep his gaze level. Her expression clouded. Maybe, she said. He watched her pat her foot, eyeballing him. And maybe this good company would go shootin off his mouth the way others I've heard of have. Toker wiped a quick hand across his mouth. You seein here the original zipped lip, he said. They weighed each other in silence. As the relationship between Roby and Toker becomes more serious and Truman's downward psychopathic spiral accelerates, they steer a collision course toward a conclusion that mirrors the opening pages' blend of subtle nuance, suspenseful melodrama, and impressive literary technique. Although A Good Baby is written in an unmistakably Rookean language that revels in surreal and comic effects, its major dramatic threads - a vicious crime, the saving of a child, falling in love, punishing the guilty - are the fundamental stuff of fiction; and it is the creative interplay between surprise and expectation, between the sparklingly orignal and the comfortably familiar, that makes A Good Baby such a tremendously satisfying reading experience.
How I Saved the Province is a wildly uneven volume that nonetheless contains some characteristically imaginative bursts of literary high spirits. Of the three short stories that it includes, two are well worth encountering. "Dust" brilliantly sketches a Vancouver down-and-outer's obsession with Princess Di's visit to Expo '86, and "Up a Tree" is a successful experiment in the. multiple-narrator recounting of a slice of contemporary urban madness. Both demonstrate Rooke's consummate way with postmodernist techniques, as he indulges in the kind of literary highwire acts previously displayed in collections such as The Love Parlour (1977) and A Bolt of White Cloth (1984).