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Not all the stories are this strong. Englander sometimes seems unable to elevate a story beyond a clever premise. Despite its wry humor, "The GUgul ofPark Avenue," about a middle-aged gentile who suddenly "reaUzes" his past-life Jewishness, ultimately feels like second-rate PhiUp Roth. "Reb Kringle," which examines a disgruntled Hasidic department-store Santa, verges on sentimentaUty. And the title story, concerning a Hasidic husband's marital problems and his rabbi's unsettling solution, ends in easy irony, avoiding the emotional complexity the subject matter seems to demand. Time and future publications will determine if Englander has what it takes to become the literary star he is already touted as being. The best stories of this inaugural collection suggest ifs a decent bet. (JT) White Oleander by Janet Fitch Little, Brown, 1999, 390 pp., $24 What is amazing about this first novel is how Fitch deftly avoids melodrama in what could so easily become a hackneyed story. The protagonist is a young girl, Astrid, whose mother is a briUiant poet with an acerbic worldview bordering on psychopathic. When Astrid's mother poisons her lover and is sentenced to life in prison, Astrid is shuffled into foster care and faces all of the perils one would expect: sexual advances from the fathers and jealous rage from the mothers, as weU as abuse and the temptations of alcohol, drugs and seU-mutilation. Yet somehow Fitch pushes Astrid's story into the realm oflyricism while still drawing characters that are human and humanly fascinating. Each of Astrid's temporary homes is peopled by vivid characters, among them an ex-stripper who has been turned on to the Lord by an attractive minister, a Vietnam vet who introduces Astrid to sex, a witty and creepy caricature of a suburban housewife (her Mary Kay makeover of Astrid is one of the most startling moments of the novel) and a bevy of practical women who make their living scavenging the hüls of Los Angeles for junk to sell and who teach Astrid to "glean from the wreckage what could be remade and resold." The strange crannies of foster care mesh with the California landscape as Astrid progresses from dreamy child to cautious adult. Her continual search for a substitute parent is punctuated by letters from her imprisoned mother, whose poetry and savagery Astrid learns to mistrust , even as she comes to accept her own artistic talent. Fitch's prose carries the novel, weaving together images of poisonous flowers and hot winds, annual fires and mirrored moons until the book reads more like mythology than a hard-luck tale of a sad girl and her abusive mother. The author's skiU is evident in the magical rendition of Astrid's tale alongside the aU-toocontemporary and famUiar moments of sexual violence. Astrid demonstrates a fairytale sensibUity early on when she laments the burden her existence is to her poet-mother, observing, "She was a beautiful woman dragging a crippled foot and I was that foot. I was bricks sewn into the hem of her clothes, I was a steel The Missouri Review · 213 dress." Moments like this that are simultaneously deUcate and terrifying permeate the novel and offset the potential for maudlin indulgence. Foster care as viewed throughAstrid's eyes reveals the combination of the fantastic and the modem characteristic of an American chUd's Ufe at the end of the twentieth century. Like a Grimms' tale, White Oleander cuts to the quick, even as it captivates. (TH) The Long Home by William Gay MacMurray & Beck, 1999, 257 pp., $24.95 The Long Home, William Gay's first novel, is strongly rooted in the hüls and hollows of east Tennessee. Set in 1944 (with frequent flashbacks to the early 1930s, when a mysterious figure named Douglas Hardin appeared in Mormon Springs and moved in on the Hovington family, taking over their land and terrorizing them and their neighbors), the novel tells the story of a young carpenter named Nathan Winer, who is attempting to come to terms with the disappearance some years earUer of his father. Winer is befriended by William Tell Oliver, an elderly mountaineer . Oliver knows what really happened to Winer's...


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pp. 213-214
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