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Thesetwonovelsdemonstratetwolevelsofambition:One, Public Life, gears up; and the other, At Sea, gears down. Widely praised young writer Ellen Akins, now living in Cornucopia , Wisconsin, leaps upon a very large stage in her third novel, Public Life.Itisrepletewithsocialissuesandfullofnationalandinternational intrigue, all explored through the private life and career of Ann Matter , media adviser to Henry Anderson–a U.S. presidential candidate who wins the race. Toby Olson, who teaches at Temple University and is a past winner of the PEN/Faulkner award, investigates the much more circumscribed world of Provincetown, Massachusetts in his sixth novel, At Sea. He portrays a few short months in the life of Peter Blue, a policeman tilling the rotating crops of drugs and violence in the small patch of earth that makes up the tiny resort town on the tip of Cape Cod. Ann Matter and Peter Blue both toil in one of the few growing industries in America–the service sector. They are members of the guard class. Peter Blue guards property and people, and Ann Matter guards the reputation of her employer, the president. Toby Olson and Ellen Akins: At Sea, Public Life 278 279 Public Life and At Sea are set in the vaguely recent past, and both countontheworldseemingprettymuchasitis,whichcreatesinteresting problems for their authors. In Olson’s novel, the national calamity of AIDS has not yet put its indelible mark on Provincetown, making At Sea seem more historical than contemporary. But Akins has the more difficult time, since Public Life competes with–well, public life. Her campaign, and her president, can hardly hold a candle to the display of public self-exposure the country witnessed during the ’92 presidential campaign, and, for all of Henry Anderson ’s charm, he’s no Bill Clinton. Whatheisisacombinationofmanypreviouspresidents:thegood intentionsof JimmyCarter,thepopulismofRonaldReagan,theTexas background of George Bush, topped off with a dash of the earnestness of the current commander-in-chief. Anderson is a stew of familiar attributes , with Bush providing the dominant taste. AkinshasMatterconsider:“Hewassoinept,andyethischaracter came shining through, and suddenly she felt protective, as if she were nottheonewhowantedtofixhishair,hisgrimaces,hishecticgestures and erratic speech, halting, then running on; as if his ineptness might be the key to his charm.” But the primary story of Public Life is Ann Matter’s. She is the indispensable aide, part sounding board and part Peggy Noonan, who was Reagan’s speechwriter and master of the eternal high school valedictorian prose style. The president tells Matter in an anguished moment, “I thought you were representative of the American public, the American psyche. . . . But you’re not the public after all, are you? You’re MY public.” But Matter has a non-public life, secret even from the president– an early marriage, a skittish ex-husband and a young child she has 280 abandoned, who comes back, at the novel’s implausible climax, to literally haunt her. Public Life is a commendably ambitious novel, underpinned by a narrative method more sophisticated and delicate (multiple points of view intermixed with flashes both backward and forward) than can adequately support the rougher, soap opera-ish elements of its story. Though Akins makes a number of salient points about image creation and political life, she does seem to place (as doubtless do the practi­ tioners) too much importance on the public relations aspect of running the government. One looks in her novel for where the real power lies, beyond that which flows from the images media people create. Olson’s At Sea makes good use of its wonderfully ambivalent title. Peter Blue is truly at sea, a handsome man with problems, the sort of fellowwhohasnoshortageofpeople(bothmaleandfemale)whowant to help him solve them. Olson is an exemplary writer. His earlier novels have won praise and deserved awards. At Sea borrows its form more directly from popular genre fiction: police procedurals and detective fiction. Rather than embellish and embroider those models with postmodern flourishes , as he has done in his earlier novels, such as Seaview (1992) and Utah (1987), here he restrains himself and lets up on digression and reflection, allowing the story to rush forward. Peter Blue is investigating a rape while still involved in an ongoing narcotics case. He kills a local boy during a drug bust, and that, along with the later mysterious murder of the rape victim (and the death of his own marriage), sets the wild, dune-buggy-ride plot hurtling into motion. As befits an author who has published fifteen volumes of poetry, Olson’s work is textured with metaphor, a palpable...


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