Fiction Chronicle: The Bird is a Raven

A wrapup of new fiction for the New York Times.

newyorktimes-logoTHE BIRD IS A RAVEN. By Benjamin Lebert. Translated by Peter Constantine. (Knopf, $16.95.) Writers are supposed to learn restraint over time, but Lebert, a 23-year-old German, already has that quality down pat. He does a lot with few words in this follow-up to his 1999 debut novel, “Crazy.” Just over 100 small pages, “The Bird Is a Raven” depicts a single evening’s conversation between strangers on a train. The narrator, Paul, tentatively encourages the friendly overtures of his bunkmate, Henry, only to find that his new acquaintance won’t stop talking. As Henry spins a long, meandering account of his stormy relationship with two friends, Paul can’t make up his mind whether the other man is likably eccentric or just plain crazy. One minute Henry seems like a nice enough chap, and the next he’s talking about violent urges, sexual hang-ups and repulsive digestive processes. (“Can you imagine how disgusting it is to have diarrhea, all the time and everywhere?” he asks.) Lebert explores the limits of trust, blending broad humor and sudden bursts of melodrama while maintaining a sense of delicately balanced tension. Even the novel’s apparent weaknesses, like the characters’ identical narrative voices, turn out to be part of his master plan.

BILLIE MORGAN. By Joolz Denby. (Serpent’s Tail, paper, $15.) It’s a shame every bad girl can’t plead for redemption with the swashbuckling verve of the aging biker babe Billie Morgan. Denby’s protagonist begins her memoir with a deal-breaking admission: she’s committed murder. Back in the 70’s, while riding with a north England motorcycle gang, she killed one of the gang’s hangers-on. The crime has haunted her ever since and confirmed her lifelong hunch that she’s a deserving outcast from the society of ordinary people. “There was an impenetrable barrier between me and them,” she writes. “I was a murderer. They were normal. . . . I was – different. Really different now, not just a maladjusted kid who couldn’t fit in, but a person who had stepped through a dreadful gate into some kind of roaring, bloody limbo.” But the truth is that Billie has no interest in fitting in. She dismisses anything “tame and samey,” wooing the reader with vivid descriptions of the outsider’s life. A gang kid’s mom is “all slappy hands and stinking booze and fag breath; going for my eyes with her square-tipped, inch-long, acrylic nails hooked like claws.” A severed head, purchased from an undertaker by another biker, floats in a jar, its “soft, small mouth” partly open. Motorcycles with names like Wolfsbane and Lady Blue are painted candy-apple red and hi-pearl sapphire. Denby’s other characters aren’t as full-fleshed as Billie, but she’s got enough personality to carry the novel.

AGAINST GRAVITY. By Farnoosh Moshiri. (Penguin, paper, $14.) The characters in Moshiri’s third novel don’t have problems as piddling as dead-end jobs or psoriasis. Roya, an Iranian immigrant, tells her daughter bedtime stories about their escape from Iran by way of a disease-ridden Afghan refugee camp. Ric, Roya’s boyfriend, relates his abduction by paramilitary thugs in Argentina while on a mission for the New Left paramilitary group he belonged to. Moshiri’s only believable – not to mention likable – creation is Madison, a fortyish man dying of AIDS, and he’s a bigoted loner who’s losing his grip on sanity. Each character narrates his or her own life story, and Moshiri shares their belief that their extraordinary experiences automatically make them interesting people. She even prefaces each section with a quotation from the character in question. Ric’s is representative of her overblown style: “Penitentiaries are quiet tonight. Children are fast asleep. Or if one is awake, crying for his mother, we do not know him, my love. We lie down together in our suspending cage, straining to hear that lonely child.” Moshiri doesn’t have enough real ideas to justify this rhetoric.

BECOMING STRANGERS. By Louise Dean. (Harcourt, $23.) A luxury vacation is no picnic for the two couples at the center of Dean’s debut novel. Jan, a middle-aged man battling terminal cancer, visits a Caribbean resort with his wife in search of some kind of closure, while Dorothy and George, after nearly 55 years together, seek simple relaxation. Both goals prove elusive as a series of crises embroil both couples and, eventually, everyone else at the resort. Dean handles the expanding roster of characters effortlessly, animating bit players who sound at first like suspects in a game of Clue: jabbering Americans, a mysterious Asian beauty, a handyman-cum-gigolo. She seems to eye them all from a distance, waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves. “It was rude of her to be half-naked,” Dorothy decides upon encountering one of the younger female guests. “What was it her London Jewish friends used to say? Chopped liver. That was how Dorothy felt and she resented it now even as she had when she was young and fresh-faced.” The doomed Jan struggles to transcend such pettiness, with mixed results. “There was never a day that he woke and said, ‘Today I will choose liberty above all else, or justice, hedonism or even new experiences,’ ” he muses. “No, he chose coffee or tea, albeit very good brands, and sometimes he screwed with the proper order of things and threw in a cube of sugar.” Like Jan, Dean never quite finds deeper meaning. But “Becoming Strangers” is still a diverting trip.

TIME WON’T LET ME. By Bill Scheft. (HarperCollins, $24.95.) A serendipitous twist of the zeitgeist prompts five middle-aged men to take a long look back in this second novel from Scheft, a Sports Illustrated columnist. Back in 1965, as prep-school classmates, they formed the Truants, a cookie-cutter garage band that played a few school dances and pressed a vanity album before dissolving. Forty years later, hearing that a German record collector paid $10,000 for the album, the guys see an opportunity to make a few bucks with a reunion show. It’s “The Big Chill” redux, complete with a retro soundtrack. In an early flashback, the Truants become the toast of school dances by stretching out their signature slow song, “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore),” to a grope-friendly 10 minutes. Decades later, the lead singer seduces the bassist’s wife with a potent karaoke rendition of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Scheft dresses up the facile plot with plenty of vivid detail, but his characters are indistinguishable and his tone – of complacent self-deprecation – isn’t nearly as charming as he evidently hopes. At the climactic concert, one of the bandmates’ sons wondered “if what he was witnessing on the dance floor, this cathartic aneurysm, was part of the aging process, and if it was, could it be avoided in some way other than having the good taste to die before 45?” “Time Won’t Let Me” prompts the same question.

-Etelka Lehoczky, 2006